WASHINGTON — Despite previously reported delays from the Government Accountability Office and the Missile Defense Agency, a key U.S. Air Force radar designed to detect ballistic missile threats appears to be on track to reach initial operational capability in fiscal 2021, according to an MDA announcement.
The MDA provided information to the GAO in June that indicated all construction and integration activities for the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), based at at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, had stopped last March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The program went into “caretaker status,” meaning just a small group stayed at the site to ensure the materials were protected from the elements.
This meant the initial fielding planned for FY21 was delayed and the Air Force would not take ownership of the operational radar until FY23, according to the GAO report.
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, which 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 last summer.
However, MDA says that as of the last week of February, the LRDR is “currently undergoing radar installation” at Clear and “is on track for delivery and Initial Operational Capability in 2021, having completed all major production activities as well as array panel and equipment installation.”
With Alaska reopening to travelers from the rest of the country, military construction resumed in May and radar integration resumed in July, according to MDA.
“Despite the challenges, the Corps of Engineers in Alaska, the State of Alaska, the Missile Defense Agency and the many contractors involved in the construction of the LRDR have been working together towards achieving IOC by the end of this calendar year,” the statement notes.
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 caused a delay in these tests, and the MDA announcement does not lay out a test schedule for the system.
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 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.