COVID-19 Affecting Ballistic Missile Defense Near Russia, China, North Korea

North Korea ICBM
This photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency is said to show the country's intercontinental ballistic missile, Hwasong-14, being launched from an undisclosed location on July 28, 2017. STR/AFP/Getty

The debut of a ballistic missile defense system being installed at Clear Air Force Station in central Alaska has reportedly been delayed for at least a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Work on the system, known as the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), was halted in March due to the pandemic, according to a July report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). An "initial fielding" of the LRDR had been planned for the 2021 fiscal year, while transfer to the Air Force had been expected the following year.

"All LRDR construction and integration activities ceased in March 2020 due to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)," the report states. "As a result, initial fielding is delayed and transfer to the Air Force is now expected in late fiscal year 2023."

After completion of construction, which began last year and is largely contracted to Lockheed Martin, the LRDR is expected to be able to "track incoming missiles and discriminate the warhead-carrying vehicle from decoys and other non-lethal objects" for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System, a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) program designed to detect potential threats from places like North Korea, Iran, China and Russia.

The report states that a developmental step in the LRDR program that had been expected for fiscal year 2018 was previously delayed, while the program also had a $25 million budget overrun. Delivery of the LRDR to government custody was further delayed in January due to "radar component construction issues." The latest construction delay occurred over fears of transmitting the virus, since workers are required to be in close contact.

"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 during a virtual symposium on August 4, according to Defense News.

"The good news is construction is back up and running," Hill added. "And we are delivering those arrays that are going into low-power and high-power testing later this year, so we are pretty excited about that."

The GAO report notes that the current testing plan for the LRDR includes two ground tests followed by only one flight test, scheduled for the third quarter of the 2021 fiscal year, which would be between April and June of the 2021 calendar year. It warns that "key aspects" of data required to evaluate the program are gathered from flight tests, expressing concern that only one flight test is planned.

"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," the report states.

Newsweek reached out to the Air Force for comment.