How Much Radar for $1 Billion? (February 7, 2014)

According to a recent news report, the United States plans to spend nearly $1 billion dollars on a new missile defense radar in Alaska.[1]  This radar is intended to increase the discrimination capability of the current U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system.  Although no details on the radar have been publicly released, it will certainly be some sort of X-band phased-array radar (“X-band” indicates an operating frequency of about 10 GHz).  So how much X-band radar can you get for a billion dollars?  And does this price tell us anything about the likely nature of the radar?  As will be seen below, there are at least several possibilities

A TPY-2 X-band radar.

The U.S. currently has eight TPY-2 X-band radars, with four more under construction.  These air-transportable radars are relatively inexpensive, costing about $180-200 million each including supporting equipment. However, these radars are far too small (in terms of the power and antenna aperture) for the GMD discrimination mission.


A TPY-2 radar and supporting equipment.  (Image source: MDA)


A“Stacked” TPY-2 radar

A 2012 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Report called for deploying five “stacked” TPY-2 radars at five sites (including one in Alaska) as GMD discrimination radars.    These radars would use two TPY-2 antennas, stacked one on top of the other on a turntable, giving an eight-fold increase in the radar’s power-aperture-gain (an appropriate figure of merit for a discrimination radar) relative to a TPY-2 radar.  According to the NAS Report, once developed, such a radar would cost about $320 million each to build in batch of five.[2]  The NAS puts the cost of developing the radar at $0.8-1.0 billion.  Thus the cost of developing and deploying just one stacked radar would be about $1.1-1.3 billion.  The Department of Defense’s estimated cost of a stacked TPY-2 is “at least $500 million (see next paragraph), so this option would seem to be possible for the “nearly $1 billion” figure cited for the proposed new radar.

However, the MDA does not seem to be favorably inclined to the stacked TPY-2 proposal.  A February 2013 Department of Defense report to Congress concludes that: “The cost to build a stacked AN/TPY-2 radar array would be at least $500 million.  Alternative concepts would provide a more robust capability for less cost.”[3]  Moreover, while the range of such a stacked radar would be much greater than that of a TPY-2 radar, it would be significantly less than other X-band radar options.


An Upgraded GBR-P

A third option would be to take the existing Ground-Based Radar – Prototype (GBR-P) X-band radar at the U.S. test range on Kwajalein Atoll and move it to Alaska, probably with some significant upgrades.  This radar is no longer being used for testing and the Congressional Budget Office has estimated the total cost of upgrading and moving the radar (to the U.S. East Coast) to be $510 million. (See my post of August 6, 2013).   The GBR-P was designed to be upgradeable, and under the George W. Bush Administration’s now-cancelled European Missile Defense plan, it would have been moved to the Czech Republic and renamed the European Midcourse Radar.  Depending on the extent of the upgrades (see my post of June 11, 2013), this radar could have a significantly greater range than a stacked TPY-2.  However, it would also have a very limited electronic field of view, which could limit its capability to deal with attacks by multiple missiles.  In addition, it is likely that the MDA will want to deploy at least one more large X-band radar (for example, on the East Coast) and there is only one GBR-P (although, as discussed next, the SBX could also be redeployed).


The GBR-P under construction (Image source:

A Land-Based SBX

A fourth option would be to build another Sea-Based X-band (SBX) radar, but to place it on land rather than on a ship.  The SBX is generally described as costing about $0.9-1.0 billion.  However, roughly $250 million of this cost was for the modified ocean-going oil drilling platform it is deployed on.  Thus it seems at least possible that a land-based version of the SBX could be built for about $1 billion, even though the SBX was built for test purposes, and some additional costs would likely be involved in building it to operational standards of reliability and survivability.  This option would give greater range than any of the other options above, but like the upgraded GBR-P, it would have a limited electronic field of view.  Alternatively, the SBX itself could be removed from its ocean-going platform, upgraded, and redeployed on land.  (The NAS Report called for moving the SBX ashore, although it proposed placing the radar on Adak Island in the Aleutians rather than the new radar’s likely central Alaska location.)


The SBX radar under construction. (Image source: MDA)


Or Some Other Option

Other possibilities exist.  The new Cobra Judy radar ship has an X-band phased array radar with an aperture similar to that of the GBR-P.  However, no details about this radar’s other characteristics or cost appear to be publicly available.  Or MDA could choose an entirely new radar design, although this would seem likely to cost substantially more than $1 billion.


The new Cobra Judy radar ship, with its S-band and X-band radar antennas.  (Image source:



[1] Andrea Shalal-Esa, “Exclusive: Pentagon to Boost Missile Defense Funding by over $4 Billion: Sources,”, February 7, 2014.

[2] NAS Report, p. 274.

[3] Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, “Stacked AN/TPY-2 Array Concept Report to Congress,” February 2013.

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1 Comment

  1. Marco Fey

     /  February 17, 2014

    How likely will the new radar be capable of discriminating?
    Amy Butler reports at Aviation Week ( that the new radar (“Long Range Discrimination Radar”), taking advantage of “advances in radar developments and manufacturing to produce a highly reliable and sensitive system,” is supposed to be “designed to differentiate between incoming warheads and countermeasures.”


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