Correction — This story has been corrected to clarify that Clear, Alaska, is under the control of U.S. Space Force and that the radar will be operated by the Space Force.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Missile Defense Agency has finished installing radar arrays and wrapped up military construction for the Long-Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR).
The agency held a Dec. 6 ceremony at the radar’s location at Clear Space Force Station, Alaska, declaring the initial fielding of the radar.
Now that MDA has completed construction, it will integrate the radar into the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system (GMD) and the Command and Control, Battle Management and Communications (C2BMC) system during 2022 in preparation for formal operational acceptance by the U.S. Space Force in 2023, MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill told reporters in a briefing following the ceremony.
In a statement, MDA said that once “fully operational, LRDR will provide unparalleled ability to simultaneously search and track multiple small objects, including all classes of ballistic missiles, at very long ranges, under continuous operation.”
“Its discrimination capability will allow it to identify lethal objects, such as enemy warheads, and differentiate them from non-lethal decoys,” the statement added.
The Lockheed Martin-manufactured LRDR will help conserve the number of Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System interceptors used for threat engagements and will also be able to address hypersonic missiles in future configurations, according to the statement.
The GMD is designed to protect the continental U.S. from potential intercontinental ballistic missile threats from North Korea and Iran.
“Today marks an extremely important milestone for U.S. homeland defense,” Hill said in the statement. “The Long Range Discrimination Radar has finished construction, and we can now begin the testing phase that will lead to the full operational use of this vital system. LRDR will allow Northern Command to better defend the United States from ballistic and hypersonic missile threats.”
The LRDR program has experienced delays due to the coronavirus pandemic. The radar was supposed to have had an operational flight test in the third quarter of fiscal 2021.
Ground testing ahead of flight testing has begun, Hill confirmed. “We’re in the middle of that ground testing now and it’s pretty complex. When you think about the new capabilities that a long-range discrimination radar brings into the overall ground-based missile defense system, all the upgrades that we’re doing with the GMD system, the upgrades we are doing to command and control, we sort of just start there. That ground test campaign is going on now that will lead to a development test, followed by an operational test and what we’ll do is we’ll fly a representative threat model across the face of the LRDR,” he said.
MDA had to stop all construction and integration activities for LRDR when the 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 Government Accountability Office found in a recent report LRDR did make progress in 2020, with the prime contractor completing the installation of four 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 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.
Beyond ballistic missile defense
In its statement, MDA said the LRDR will also support space domain awareness by monitoring space activity like satellites orbiting the earth, spent rocket bodies, and fragmentation debris.
“I think the homeland defense is in a really great place today with sensors like LRDR,” Hill said during a discussion with Bradley Bowman, senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Military and Political Power, released Dec. 6.
“In rock-solid coordination with the Department of the Air Force and specifically the Space Force today, we have gone in and digitized the back ends of these radars,” Hill said. “So, you may look at one of the early warning radars and say, ‘Oh, that was built back in the ‘50s and the ‘60s.’ But I will tell you under the hood, those are very, very capable sensors, and they are going to contribute to the all-domain awareness that the Northern Command needs to protect the homeland. So, very excited about where we’re going with the overall sensing capability.”
While the LRDR is currently focused on ballistic missile tracking, Hill said that though it is not yet an official requirement, a software upgrade could give LRDR hypersonic weapon detection and tracking capability.
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 in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.