Anyone who has driven on Oahu’s south shore has likely seen a large white dome floating in Pearl Harbor. The Golf Ball, as it’s known to Oahu residents, is actually a sea-based ballistic missile radar that is capable of transoceanic travel. HPR was recently given a tour of the massive ship.
If you work on the SBX-1, the daily commute requires climbing 13 stories of narrow, open air scaffolding and catwalks. That’s higher than the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to drop your keys.
The Sea-Based X Band Radar is the only ship of its kind in the world. It was built using an off-the-shelf oil rig from Norway – which was heavily modified in Brownsville, Texas by the Missile Defense Agency.
My guide on this day is Bob Dees. He’s a retired Navy officer and has been managing the SBX program for 17 years.
"SBX is mobile, so we change what the defended area is," Dees says.
The ship is so large that it can’t even fit through the Panama Canal. On the football field-sized main deck, the giant white bubble – called a radome – reaches 250 feet above the ocean surface. The radome looks rigid, but it’s actually made from several layers of heavy duty canvas and resin.
"The outer layer is a hydrophobic and anti-UV damage coating," Dees said.
Like a sports stadium, the radome is held up by air pressure – up to the equivalent being 11 inches underwater. You actually have to go through an airlock to get inside the dome.
Once inside, the massive radar – weighing 4.8 million pounds – rises eight stories above us. The 45,000 individual transmitters allow the SBX to see an object the size of a baseball from over 2,500 miles away.
And it can look in any direction by rotating on a 360-degree track.
Dees says, newer radars may be more powerful, but few can match the unique flexibility of the 15-year-old SBX.
"We have some limitations on the amount, but we can turn, we can elevate up to 90 degrees in order to scan," he said.
Five defense contractors provide the ship’s 75-person crew. They do everything from navigate to cook meals. There are actually no uniform military personal onboard.
With resupply, the SBX can remain at sea for well over a year. Crewmembers rotate off every two months or so. Leaving the vessel requires riding in a large orange cone that gets suspended between the SBX and a supply ship.
"It’s actually very safe because the transition time is very short. So everybody throws their bags in, steps on, they pick up," Dees said.
Although the SBX has operated out of Pearl Harbor since it launched in 2005, Bob Dees says each port visit is done as a competitive bid. The ship has opted for other Pacific naval shipyards in the past, including Seattle.
Senior defense officials are also studying the possibility of permanently relocating the SBX to the U.S. Atlantic Coast. But a decision is years away, so for now, the Pearl Harbor golf ball will remain a fixture of the Oahu coastline.