A new Alaska-based missile defense radar has been delayed for about a year due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Government Accountability Office report and the director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

In the GAO’s annual report on the U.S. missile defense system, published last month, the report said MDA told GAO in June “all LRDR construction and integration activities ceased in March 2020 due to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

Construction of the structure that will house the Missile Defense Agency’s Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) is almost finished at Clear Air Force Station in Clear, Alaska. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)
Construction of the structure that will house the Missile Defense Agency’s Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) is almost finished at Clear Air Force Station in Clear, Alaska. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

“As a result, initial fielding is delayed and transfer to the Air Force is now expected in late fiscal year 2023,” the report continued.

The LRDR, or Long Range Discrimination Radar, is an S-Band radar MDA is procuring for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system that defends the U.S. from ballistic missile threats. LRDR aims to provide capabilities to track incoming missiles and discriminate between warhead-carrying vehicles and decoys or other non-lethal objects. The prime contractor for LRDR is Lockheed Martin [LMT] and the platform is being based in Clear, Alaska.

MDA previously planned to field the system in fiscal year 2021 before transferring it to the Air Force in FY ’22.

During the virtual Space and Missile Defense Symposium last week, MDA director Vice Adm. Jon Hill acknowledged LRDR as one system delayed due to the pandemic.

He underscored while MDA did not take risks in supporting the warfighter and continued to support major movements around the world, “the only thing where we did have some fallback has been developing and delivery of the systems.”

Hill said this is “because it requires people be in closed, confined spaces, sitting at computer terminals, working through really tough problems like in the development of an algorithm.”

He said that while production lines in industry “stayed very, very strong,” they still had to deal with the reality of the pandemic, particularly impacting LRDR.

For LRDR construction work occurring in Alaska, “we were able to get the team rolling and then we had to shut down and go into caretaker status.”

Hill noted caretaker status actually requires additional work because “you’ve got a radar that’s being built in a tough environment like Alaska, you can’t just stop. You have to go in and make sure that the radar arrays are protected.”

He said LRDR construction is now back up and running and MDA is delivering the arrays. MDA is “going to full power-high power testing later this year, so we’re pretty excited about that.”

The GAO report criticized MDA’s test plan for LRDR, which calls for only one flight test, originally scheduled in the third quarter of FY ’21, following two ground tests.

“By having two ground tests before the only flight test, it increases the likelihood that the models will not be accredited when testing is complete. As a result, performance analysis and the majority of model validation and accreditation will have to be made concurrently, just prior to the LRDR Technical Capability Declaration.”

The technical capability declaration is also scheduled for the third quarter of FY ’21.

“This increases the risk of discovering issues late in development, which could result in performance reductions or delivery delays,” GAO added.

In March, Lockheed Martin said it had delivered the first 10 LRDR antenna panels to the facility in Alaska. The final system will consist of two arrays, each made of 10 panels. At the time, the company expected to complete full delivery of the system to MDA later in 2020 (Defense Daily, March 10).

Each panel is 27 feet tall and each array will be about four stories high and wide. Temporary structure were assembled in front of the final radar facility during construction to ensure installation could occur regardless of weather, before MDA went into “caretaker status.”

The first panel was delivered last year  (Defense Daily, August. 6, 2019).