Pandemic and other problems delay missile defense system in Clear

Cranes and construction workers lay concrete with a white radar dome in the background
A few workers at the Long Range Discrimination Radar construction site in June. Credit U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska District

The Pentagon agency that runs the nation’s missile-defense system halted work earlier this year on a $375 million radar facility near Clear, largely because of COVID-19 concerns. A congressional report says the decision will likely delay the Missile Defense Agency’s fielding of the advanced radar facility by about a year.

Missile Defense Agency officials told the General Accounting Office in June that they halted all construction and systems integration at the Long Range Discrimination Radar, or LRDR, in March, due to pandemic concerns. An agency spokesman says staffing at the LRDR at Clear Air Force Station was kept at a minimum while the facility was in what they call “caretaker status.”

“There was a work stoppage. And so we went into the caretaker status. So we have a limited staff present there at LRDR,” spokesman Ryan Keith said.

Keith declined to say when work stopped, but he says some work has since resumed at the LRDR – although he wouldn’t say when. And he declined to confirm a finding in a recent General Accounting Office report that the work stoppage would push back the fielding of the radar facility by about a year.

“Any specifics about the schedule going forward … we’ll need to staff and get back to you on,” he said in an interview last week.

The GAO report issued in June pointed out several others issues involving acquisition and testing problems that contributed to the overall delay in fielding the LRDR – along with a cost overrun of $25 million dollars. The facility was scheduled to undergo initial testing around the end of this year. If all went well, it was to be handed over to the Air Force next year. But the GAO report says that’s all been pushed by about a year.

The programmatic delays were then aggravated by the pandemic, according to an Aug. 7 report in Defense News. The report says Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Admiral Jon Hill told an Aug. 4 online symposium that he OK’d the work stoppage because the LRDR’s  mission requires close-quarters work, which increases the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Missile defense officials say the radar facility will provide a much greater capability for tracking incoming missiles and discriminating in detection of other objects, including dummy warheads and decoys that are typically deployed by missiles to prevent the real warheads from being detected, intercepted and destroyed.

Lockheed Martin Corp. manufactures the system.

Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Jim Dodson says he thinks the delays won’t significantly reduce the economic benefits of military construction work that’s under way throughout the Interior this year.

“Most of the heavy construction on the LRDR is up. Our sense of it is that they’re working on the technical side of it.”

Dodson estimated in 2017 that the work at the LRDR and other military construction projects at Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Greely would inject about $1.5 billion into the region’s economy.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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