WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army formally announced its plan to conduct a missile defense radar “sense-off” to replace the aging Patriot that will be included in its Integrated Air and Missile Defense system (IAMD) under development.

The purpose of this sense-off seems to be designed to hit the reset button on the Lower Tier Air and-Missile Defense Sensor (LTAMDS) program that has struggled to bring about a new radar for well over a decade.

But will this effort right the ship for the program, or send it further off course?

The Raytheon-made Patriot air and missile defense radar was first fielded in the 1980s, and the Army attempted to replace the system with Lockheed Martin’s Medium Extended Air Defense System, or MEADS, through an international co-development effort with Germany and Italy. But that program was canceled in the U.S. after closing out a proof-of-concept phase roughly six years ago.

Since then, the Army has studied and debated how to replace the Patriot radar with one that has 360-degree detection capability, while Raytheon continues to upgrade its radar to keep pace with current threats. It is acknowledged that there will come a point where that radar will not be able to go up against future threats.

Taking years to decide, the service finally moved forward on a competition to replace the radar last year and chose four companies to come up with design concepts for the capability — Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Technovative Applications.

Tabula Rasa

Army acquisition chief Bruce Jette told Defense News just prior to the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference that the service wanted to hold a sense-off to identify available radar capabilities.

According to an Oct. 29 notice posted to the Federal Business Opportunities website, the sense-off will take place between May and June next year at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Each vendor with a radar will have roughly two weeks on the range to demonstrate capabilities.

The sense-off is a separate effort to the technology development program in which Lockheed and Raytheon have been chosen to participate, and any vendor in the industry can come with a capability ready to be demonstrated, opening competition back up to the entire radar industry.

The Army is holding an industry day event Nov. 14-15 for interested parties.

And it seems, according to the Army’s new lead for AMD modernization, Brig. Gen. Randall McIntire, that the sense-off is a way of identifying means to redefine requirements to more rapidly pursue a radar replacement.

McIntire’s outfit is part of the Army Futures Command — activated in August and based in Austin, Texas — that is designed to aggressively modernize the force.

“There are a lot of different approaches to it,” McIntire told Defense News in a Oct. 30 interview. “It gets back to, I think, we were being too over-specific. [The Army] was really tying its hands, so we would like to see if there is a better way of doing it and it would be like best of breed, it would be like the best athlete. We are trying to get the best thing that we can get.

“We are pretty excited to see what we get from having a clean slate, and we are very hopeful that we are going to find something that is going to have increased battlespace.”

As the result of the sense-off, the Army plans to choose one vendor to build six prototypes by the end of fiscal 2022 to prove the whether the radar can be manufactured, according to the solicitation. A follow-on contract for additional radars is expected.

But McIntire said if there is more than one option that proves extremely promising during the sense-off, it’s possible a second vendor could be chosen to build prototypes.

“We’re trying to get the best that we can and buy smaller quantities, and then buy more of the next best thing,” McIntire said. “It’s really not about these long-term development programs that take 10-15 years to work their way through the cycle.”

The Army also has an eye on a next-generation sensor that would be fielded around 2037, but the service can’t wait that long for a new capability, according to McIntire.

What comes out of the sense-off he said will help the Army redefine what it wants in a radar. This means not much is laid out in terms of requirements in the solicitation — at least not publicly.

One thing the Army is asking for is the ability for the radar to continue to take one new capability through software upgrades over time to address advancing threats.

Within the solicitation, the Army did define power requirements and is asking that the radar is able to tie into the rest of its already chosen elements of IAMD such as the Integrated air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, which is not yet fielded. But not much else is defined.

What about that 360-degree requirement?

Something not explicitly spelled out in the solicitation is the Army’s top requirement for a new radar — to have 360-degree detection capability — something that drove the need for a new radar in the first place.

While vendors who participate in the sense-off will receive a classified list of requirements, it’s unclear whether the 360-degree capability will be on that list.

McIntire told Defense News in an interview earlier this month that a 360-degree capability might not be the key attribute of the radar the Army is looking to field by 2023. But he added that it was something the Army cares about because of the threat environment.

Following the release of the solicitation, he added, there may be a variety of ways to ensure the system always sees the threat. If it turns out 360-degree detection is the best way, then the Army would shape requirements to reflect that.

With what appears to be a walking-back on the Army’s top requirement for a new radar, those who have long tracked the program have been left somewhat bewildered by the pivot.

“The secretary’s and chief of staff’s leadership in recognizing the need for multidomain operations in a complex and contested air environment stands at sharp contrast to rumors that leadership could remove the 360-degree requirement for LTAMDS,” Tom Karako, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Defense News on Oct. 31.

“The last Army Air and Missile Defense Strategy from 2012 has about 25 references to the importance of 360-degree coverage — one for every year the Army has been working on a 360 radar since the 1993 requirement for the Corps [Surface-to-Air Missile] SAM,” he said. “But the need is far greater than it was then.”

Without omnidirectional surveillance, tracking, fire control and fires, “the enemy will just kill you in your blind spots,” Karako added. “LTAMDS has been designed as a 360-degree asset. Taking it away belies its nature, it’s very reason to exist.”

While McIntire wouldn’t say whether the 360-degree capability had been officially eliminated from the requirements, he did say that the Army could still fight in an integrated way by “using a lot of different sensors” that can see the entire battlespace.

“I would just say there’s more than one way to do that. You could do it through the network or through defense design and understanding the threat,” he said. “I just think we are really trying to just step back and not over prescribe and see what we are going to get.”