The Pentagon Just Got a New Ship That Can Track Satellites… And Help Destroy Them
Cobra King vessel has some of the most powerful radars ever put to sea
The U.S. military has declared operational a high-tech new radar ship. Howard O. Lorenzen, named for a pioneering spy satellite inventor, is better known by her interchangeable code names “Cobra Judy Replacement” and “Cobra King.”
Officially a “missile range instrumentation ship,” in fact Cobra Judy Replacement, a.k.a. Cobra King, is a combination spy vessel, test asset and diplomatic tool—and a key part of a high-tech military team that, just six years ago, proved it could destroy a satellite in orbit with a ship-launched missile.
Just don’t ever expect the Pentagon to publicly state that.
CJR/CK was supposed to enter service earlier, but the ship—not her radars—had mechanical problems that needed fixing. The Navy’s quasi-military Sealift Command, previously in charge, is handing responsibility for the vessel to the Air Force.
“CJR will provide the nation with a fully capable, flexible and adaptable system that will handle future radar data collection on ballistic missiles,” the Navy stated.
Scores of nations possess long-range ballistic missiles. And all the world’s nuclear powers—the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea—maintain ballistic rockets with atomic warheads.
It’s one of Cobra King’s main jobs to monitor any tests of these rockets using her S-band and X-band radars. The S-band sensor sweeps vast expanses of sky for possible missiles in flight. The X-band zeroes in to closely track a target.
Both radars boast ranges of thousands of miles, meaning the 534-foot-long Cobra King can park in international waters and watch rockets launches, say, deep inside China or Russia. Diplomats can use the data for what the military calls “treaty verification”—in other words, making sure countries are sticking to their arms-control agreements with each other.
There’s a flip side to treaty verification. Any data Cobra King collects could help the Pentagon develop missile countermeasures. The Defense Department has spent $10 billion annually for many years designing and manufacturing air-, sea- and land-based sensors and missiles for detecting and shooting down enemy rockets.
And with minimal tweaking, these Ballistic Missile Defense systems can also target satellites in orbit. The older ship Cobra King is replacing—code name Cobra Judy—helped the Pentagon do just that in 2008.
The back story is that, in 2007, China launched a rocket at one of its old satellites, blasting the spacecraft into thousands of pieces … and proving that Beijing finally possessed the same anti-satellite methods that Washington and Moscow had originally refined during the Cold War.
The surprise Chinese sat blast scattered debris that still poses a danger to satellites, spacecraft and space stations—and elicited outrage among officials all over the world who have long argued for keeping space as peaceful as possible.
A year later in February 2008, the Pentagon countered China’s provocative test with an equally forceful—and controversial—gesture. The cruiser USS Lake Erie launched a $10-million SM-3 missile interceptor to destroy a malfunctioning American spy satellite, depicted in the video below.
Officially, the satellite shoot-down was supposed to scatter the spacecraft’s roughly 400 liters of hydrazine—a toxic propellant—in order to protect Earthlings as the defunct spy satellite re-entered orbit.
But that was clearly an excuse. James Jeffrey, a deputy national security adviser, admitted that “the likelihood of the satellite falling in a populated area is small.”
So small, in fact, that it represented essentially zero statistical risk. “There has to be another reason behind this,” Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, told The Washington Post.
Cobra Judy, a 1950s-vintage ship with upgraded radars, “collect[ed] information on the satellite both before and after the missile launch,” according to CNN.
CJR/CK could do the same—and better. “While the CJR mission is unchanged from that of the current Cobra Judy system, the new CJR dual-band radar suite provides significantly increased mission capability due to the advanced technology it employs,” crowed Raytheon, which designed and built the Cobra King radars.
What that means is that America has just boosted its ability to shoot down enemy satellites. Of course, it’s frightening to even consider the kind of major, high-tech warfare that would justify such an apocalyptic strike.