The 2023 Missile Defense Agency (MDA) budget is prioritizing defense against hypersonic missiles by funding its now operational Long-Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), a highly sensitive radar system intended to help distinguish actual threats from decoys and debris. Several intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) can present even more of a problem for defenses, as seekers can at times struggle to track multiple threats simultaneously. Defenses can struggle to distinguish an actual ICBM from decoys, debris, or even non-lethal parts of the missile that break off in-flight to release a reentry vehicle. The MDA budget proposal allocates $75 million for the Alaska-based LRDR and $165 million for sea-based X-Band Radar.
“This advanced radar achieved initial fielding in December of 2021 and is a critical mid-course sensor that improves missile defense system threat discrimination capability and also allows for a more efficient use of the ground-based mid-course defense system,” said Dee Dee Martinez, the MDA’s Comptroller.
The LRDR is described by the MDA as a “massive array” that draws upon gallium nitride technology to increase radar power and discrimination technology. MDA officials explain that the budget also includes funding for the supportive systems needed to enable the LRDR. “Our … request continues operations and support for this critical radar. $20 million to sustain and provide updates to the Upgraded Early Warning Radars, or UEWRs, and continue to sustain the Cobra Dane radar in partnership with the U.S. Air Force,” Martinez said.
The LRDR’s tactical concept is to not only “knock out” the approaching threat, but also to identify and counter many potential threats at one time. This concept relies on new levels of sensor detection sensitivity and precision, allowing the system to distinguish actual warheads from surrounding objects, including discarded missile parts, space debris, and enemy countermeasures. The LRDR can, as one senior Pentagon official put it in an interview with the National Interest, help “steer” ground-based interceptors to the correct target.
“LRDR tracks and discriminates multiple threats simultaneously, providing precision track and discrimination data to Missile Defense System firing units such as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System (GBIs),” an MDA paper says.
The Lockheed system, which developers said is now 90 percent done, has successfully tracked over 200 satellites with up to five simultaneous satellite tracks over an eight-hour period. In 2021, Lockheed and the MDA tracked rockets launched from NASA’s Wallops Island flight facility.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.