Cobra King & Gray Star: Two Critical BMD Defense Assets for the Future

by C. Zachary Hofer, Electronics Analyst, Forecast International.

On October 27, 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that the Air Force had awarded Raytheon a $24.6 million fixed-price, one-year contract for the strategically crucial Cobra King and Gray Star radar facilities, based on a sole-source acquisition.  One might think that the award is somewhat large for just one year of O&M services, and that assumption may be correct.  However, this award represents just a tiny portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Cobra King and Gray Star programs are worth to the defense contracting community.

Under the contract, Raytheon will provide operations and maintenance services, including non-personnel services, to ensure around-the-clock availability of these ballistic missile defense (BMD) radar facilities. Specifically, the contract will focus on collecting 100 percent of the tasked data collection opportunities that pass through the radars’ field of view.

The Cobra King and Gray Star BMD radar assets are unusual pieces of the Air Force’s arsenal.  Both are tasked with space tracking, ballistic missile tracking, and other long-range defense instrumentation missions.  Both are also enormously high-powered and capable of operating from extremely great standoff distances.  What makes the pair unusual is that they operate on shipborne platforms, not the Air Force’s traditional purview.  The matter is, in fact, complicated, as both ships are operated by the Military Sealift Command division of the Navy.  The radars and the missions they perform, however, are operated and executed by the Air Force.

Cobra King is the next-generation, AESA-equipped successor to the Cobra Judy radar.  The radar and its platform officially came on line on March 31, 2014 when the Cobra Judy Replacement program achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC).  The radar’s platform, the USNS Howard O. Lorenzen, had earlier, in May 2011, suffered problems when the ship failed its Board of Inspection and Survey evaluation.  The ship was later accepted by the Navy in January 2012.

Gray Star is the follow-on to the Cobra Gemini program; the newer radar replaces the older radar on board the USNS Invincible.  The Invincible’s history begins in the late 1980s, but the ship would not receive its Cobra Gemini BMD radars until the final years of the 1990s.  Now outfitted with the AESA-equipped Gray Star, the Invincible is deployed at strategic global locations in order to provide critical BMD coverage.

This newly awarded contract will sustain aspects of two key U.S. defense programs for one additional year.   Because the systems are of such high importance to security needs, though, this contract is just a “drop in the bucket” of the hundreds of millions of dollars that will eventually flow into the programs.  The USAF and USN will throw their full support behind Cobra King and Gray Star and the missions they fulfill for decades to come.

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