25 August 2011

The X-Band Radar

In these seen-it-all days it is unusual to catch a glimpse of something man-made that will genuinely cause the head to turn and a hand to scratch it simultaneously. One such thing, looking like something out of an episode of Thunderbirds, is the Sea-based X-band radar. At first sight the onlooker may query what they are looking at – the three letters WTF being a contemporary but more than adequate euphemism for what could be exclaimed.

What is it indeed? The name may be a dead giveaway as to the purpose of this monster of the seas but the what can soon be replaced with a why. Yet, let’s not rush. This leviathan is a mobile radar station (which propels itself rather than having to be tugged). Where might the idea for such an ocean going goliath have been born? Hardly surprising when it is revealed as part of the Ballistic Missile Defense System of the United States of America.

At its heart though is Russian building: perhaps ironic given that the proliferation of missiles that could simply be described as, well, big was due in no small part to the antagonism between the States and the former USSR. Sure enough though, the X-Band Radar’s platform was built at Vyborg but based, however, on a Norwegian design for an oil-drilling stage. However, fear of the Russian bear is not so much on the agenda these days. The X-Band radar is designed to detect incomings from North Korea or China.

It had to be mightily modified at a later stage to become a defender of the land of the free. The conversion took place in Brownsville, Texas and the radar mount was constructed at Ingleside in the same state and mounted there. Although the X-Band (which sounds as like a Simon Cowell inspired troupe of adolescent male singers) is based in Alaska – at Adak Island it roams throughout the Pacific Ocean. Its mission, to detect the arrival of a number of apocalyptic horsemen cunningly disguised as nuclear weapons.

At 116 meters in length and a height of 85 meters such a giant could not possibly have come cheap. How about a hundred million dollars, then? A fair guess? You would be wrong – multiply that colossal figure for this colossus by nine and you have a much better approximation of where quite a few tax dollars went. It has a crew of up to eighty five people, mostly civilian and it displaces over fifty thousand tons of water when in motion (and is surprisingly stable in all kinds of weather conditions). As for its range though – if I told you, I would have to kill you. The range is strictly classified.

The Missile Defense Agency controls the X-Band and the platform allows for movement to places where there is geographic need for improved missile defense. Although this construct will not win any boat races it can travel up to eight knots, which is useful. Due to the curvature of the earth and the size of the USA it was deemed necessary to construct this roaming radar station. In a missile attack the main job of the SBX as it is known will be to differentiate between real missiles and decoys. X-Band radar, being a higher frequency than the S-band (Aegis) of even the C-band (Patriot) the resolution of objects its tracks is very high indeed and this makes the differentiation possible. Once it has done this it will precisely track the true warheads and ascertain exactly where they are headed.

The large dome enfolds and guards a phased-array X-Band radar antenna which sounds like something Seven Of Nine might cobble together to save the day in an episode of Voyager. A phased array ensures that the direction of the radiation pattern of the whole system can be focused in to a specific direction and not others. The central dome has a flexible cover, the air pressure of which is varied according to what the weather is doing at any one time.

The SBX is somewhat power hungry. The array alone requires over a megawatt of power. Add to this the need to be self-propelled then you have a requirement for six 3.6 megawatt generators, located equally in compartments on the starboard and port side of the platform.

This means that at the moment the SBX can generate 12 megawatts of power. Roughly speaking that is enough to power well over a thousand homes. There are plans afoot to add a further two generators. Why? If one of the compartments is lost (rather careless, it might seem, but replace the word with ‘put out of action by enemy activity’ and you have it) then the other compartment will be able to ensure full capacity operation.

To give you an idea of the power of the SBX, it can track an object the size of baseball over a distance of almost three thousand miles. So if Alex Rodriguez were to ever go back to his, ahem, performance enhancing days, then anything he shoots in to the atmosphere could successfully be tracked by the SBX. America can sleep soundly at night.