WASHINGTON — The fielding of a U.S. Air Force radar to detect ballistic missile threats, currently being installed at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, is delayed by roughly a year, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
Information provided by the Missile Defense Agency in June to the GAO indicated all construction and integration activities for the Long Range Discrimination Radar had stopped in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While initial fielding was planned for fiscal 2021 and transfer to the Air Force was planned for fiscal 2022, the service is now expected to take ownership of the operational radar in late fiscal 2023.
“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 on Aug. 4.
MDA shut down radar installation efforts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, entering a “caretaker status,” Hill said. “That requires additional work. I mean, you’ve got a radar that is being built in a tough environment like Alaska — you can’t just stop. You have to go in and make sure the radar arrays are protected,” he added.
The LRDR is an S-band radar that will not only be able to track incoming missiles but also discriminate the warhead-carrying vehicle from decoys and other nonlethal objects for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System, which is designed to protect the continental U.S. from possible intercontinental ballistic missile threats from North Korea and Iran.
The program, according to the GAO report, wrapped up its system prototype assessment in an operational environment in FY19, which showed the hardware and software was mature ahead of full-rate manufacturing. That assessment was delayed from FY18, the report noted, after testing took longer due to “required antenna reconfigurations and software fixes to complete.”
The fixes resulted in a cost overrun of $25 million and caused a delay in completing a developmental step associated with satellite tracking expected in FY18, according to the report.
“While construction was ongoing in [FY19], the program was monitoring risks that could threaten the upcoming transfer of LRDR custody and ownership to the government,” the report stateed. “Specifically the program was focusing on manufacturing of the Array Panels, Sub Array Assembly Suite modules, and Auxiliary Power Group cabinets, as well as ensuring integration on site.”
Those issues “depleted schedule margin on the path towards the transfer,” which was scheduled for the fourth quarter of FY20, according to the GAO, and the transfer of LRDR custody to the government was pushed back to the first quarter of FY21 due to radar component production issues.
“The good news is construction is back up and running,” Hill said, “and we are delivering those arrays that are going into low-power and high-power testing later this year, so we are pretty excited about that.”
According to the GAO, the current test plan for LRDR has just one flight test scheduled in the third quarter of FY21, after two ground tests. The report does not clarify if the pandemic has caused a delay in these tests.
The GAO indicated concern about conducting two ground tests before the program’s only flight test, as it “increases the likelihood that the models will not be accredited when testing is complete.”
As a result, “the performance analysis and the majority of the model validation and accreditation will have to be made concurrently, just prior to the LRDR Technical Capability Declaration,” scheduled for the third quarter of FY21, the report stated. “This increases the risk of discovering issues late in development, which could result in performance reductions or delivery delays.”
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.