Lockheed Martin Long Range Discrimination Radar. Credit: Lockheed Martin artist's concept

WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training has won a $784 million contract to build a long-range discrimination radar (LRDR) that would identify incoming missile threats from the Pacific region, primarily North Korea, the Pentagon announced Oct. 21.

The S-band radar is one of the pillars of the effort by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s director, Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, to dramatically improve the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which serves as the primary U.S. territorial missile shield. Specifically, the radar would improve the MDA’s ability to discriminate between missile warheads and decoys or other objects.

Though intended primarily for missile defense, the LRDR also could contribute to the Air Force’s space situational awareness mission, defense and industry officials have said.

The Defense Department said it received three bids for the contract but did not identify the other companies. Pentagon officials and lawmakers have said the project ultimately could cost $1 billion.

The MDA’s budget request for 2015 describes the LRDR as providing a “persistent 24/7 precision tracking and discrimination capability.” Agency officials have said the new radar would be the “crown jewel” of the agency’s sensor network.

The LRDR is intended primarily to address the longstanding criticism that U.S. missile defenses are unable to discriminate between incoming warheads and relatively unsophisticated decoys.

The radar will avoid putting “the full burden of discrimination on the interceptor,” Brad Hicks, vice president of business development for integrated warfare systems and sensors at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training of Washington, said in an interview.

The other major pillar of the MDA’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense improvement plan is a new kill vehicle — the part of a missile interceptor that ultimately destroys incoming warheads by force of impact. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing are working on different elements of a new kill vehicle that would replace the Raytheon-built Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle that has been cited in test failures over the past few years. Eventually, one of the companies would be selected to produce the new hardware.

MDA officials have said previously they hope to have the radar operational at Clear Air Force Station in Alaska by 2020. The Oct. 21 announcement said work on the program will run through 2024. The White House asked for $137 million for the program in its budget request for fiscal year 2016.

Representatives from both Raytheon and Northrop Grumman confirmed in Oct. 22 emails that they had submitted proposals. Both companies are awaiting a post-award meeting with the MDA.

The contract follows Lockheed Martin’s win, in June 2014, of a $914 million firm-fixed price contract to build the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation space surveillance system, an S-band radar known as the Space Fence. Hicks said Lockheed Martin’s work on the Space Fence led to advances in the use of scalable, open architecture technologies that helped it win the LRDR contract.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.