WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s ballistic missile defense radar being installed at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, won’t have its only operational flight test for another year, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
The Long Range Discrimination Radar was supposed to have its flight test in the third quarter of fiscal 2021 after two ground tests, but the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected the program overall, has resulted in the need to move the test back to the final quarter of fiscal 2022.
But the Air Force will not take ownership of the operational radar until the third quarter of FY23 after the operational flight test. The original transfer was to take place in the fourth quarter of FY22, according to the report.
The MDA had to stop all construction and integration activities for LRDR at Clear Air Force Station when the novel coronavirus began spreading in the U.S. in March 2020. The program went into “caretaker status,” meaning just a small group stayed at the site to ensure the materials were protected from the elements.
The LRDR is an S-band radar that will not only be able to track incoming ballistic and hypersonic missiles but also discriminate the warhead-carrying vehicle from decoys and other nonlethal objects for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System. The GMD is designed to protect the continental U.S. from possible intercontinental ballistic missile threats from North Korea and Iran. Lockheed Martin is LRDR’s manufacturer.
“We did have some fallback in developing and delivery of systems because it requires people to be in close, confined spaces and sitting at computer terminals working through really tough problems like the development of an algorithm,” MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said at the virtually held Space and Missile Defense Symposium in the summer of 2020.
The GAO stated that LRDR did make progress in 2020, with the prime contractor completing the installation of 4 of 10 primary array panels and all 10 secondary array panels. Integration of radar electronics, cooling, communications and power equipment “also began, but was not finished as planned,” the report added.
Even prior to the pandemic, program officials were watching out for risks during FY19 that could affect the transfer of the radar to the Air Force. “These risks included manufacturing of the array panels, subarray assembly suite modules and auxiliary power group cabinets,” the GAO reported.
Lockheed completed the subarray assembly suites and auxiliary power group cabinets in FY20. However, the GAO noted, a contractor identified positive COVID-19 cases on its array panel production line and delayed the completion of those from August 2020 to October 2020 as the contractor resorted to quarantining workers by shift.
The GAO said the contractor finished installation of the remaining primary array panels in the first quarter of FY21.
The shutdown of the operation at Clear Air Force Station during the pandemic led to an increase in costs, and “negotiations with the contractor are ongoing to address additional costs,” according to the GAO report.
The reason for the cost increase includes maintaining critical staff on site to monitor the radar and equipment, production impacts, redeploying to the site, and “performance impacts to the overall contract,” the report stated.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.