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Pentagon Readies Competition for "Global-Strike" Weapon
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Air Force is taking initial steps to launch a defense-industry competition for building a new missile capable of flying at hypersonic speeds and attacking targets anywhere around the world within 60 minutes of launch (see GSN, June 16).
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center on May 31 solicited information from defense contractors on the technologies they might propose using for the service's future Conventional Strike Missile.
The service "desires to understand the concepts, architectures and designs that will provide the capability to strike globally, precisely and rapidly" using non-nuclear weapons against high-priority, "time-sensitive targets," the Air Force said in a formal "request for information" posted online.
Incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently described the Conventional Strike Missile and other potential "conventional prompt global strike" weapons as "valuable" alternatives to launching long-range, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles against urgent targets. They would be most useful "in situations where a fleeting, serious threat was located in a region not readily accessible by other means," he told Congress.
Military brass have said a small number of such weapons are needed in rare instances when, for example, a North Korean ballistic missile is being prepared for launch or a terrorist is spotted at a faraway safe house, and no U.S. warships or aircraft are situated nearby.
A potentially key component of the new missile -- Lockheed Martin's Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 -- has experienced repeated developmental delays over the past few years, culminating in a flight demonstration failure in April 2010 (see GSN, Aug. 19, 2010).
Another test of the HTV-2 prototype -- a dart-like glider that would launch aboard rocket boosters, zoom through the upper atmosphere and careen into target at speeds exceeding Mach 5 -- is slated for August. That is to be followed up by a more complex flight test in fiscal 2012, according to defense sources.
For the past several years, Lockheed Martin has been retained on a sole-source contract for this research and development work. When it comes to producing a deployable missile, though, the Pentagon expects to open up the program to potential competitors.
Other big military contractors -- to include Boeing and Northrop Grumman -- are widely expected to propose alternative hypersonic technologies to compete against Lockheed Martin to build such a strike system.
The House Armed Services Committee last month issued a defense spending report that encourages the Pentagon to explore an array of solutions for the fast-attack mission. Lawmakers are seeking to reduce costs, decrease the risk of technological challenges, and offer a military capability sooner -- before a top-level Pentagon "critical design review" is conducted next year, according to the fiscal 2012 defense authorization report.
Three days after the House panel issued this guidance, Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter wrote to key Armed Services Committee members to offer assurances he would open the conventional strike effort to the commercial market, but only after technological progress in the challenging mission area could be proven, according to the independent weekly Inside the Pentagon.
"It is my intent to promote competition in all areas of [conventional prompt global strike] acquisition," Carter's May 20 letter reportedly states. "However, the timing for introduction of competition is critical and will be based on matured technology demonstrated by flight tests."
An initial Conventional Strike Missile capability could be ready for fielding around 2020, according to industry officials interviewed this week. The Air Force by press time was unable to confirm the projected deployment date, which apparently has slipped from a previous fielding estimate of 2017 (see GSN, March 15, 2010).
Just three years ago, the missile development effort was put on a fast track for early deployment by 2012, a goal that gradually evaporated as technical challenges arose (see GSN, Sept. 3, 2008). A rudimentary capability in the form of a single missile was to be put on alert at Vandenberg Air Force Base., Calif., with two backup systems held in reserve.
Current plans call for several missiles to ultimately be fielded -- perhaps three to five, according to one industry source -- but quantities would be capped because of the system's high cost and niche military mission. Early estimates were that each operational test of the technology could cost $250 million, and the first deployable missile could require $100 million to procure.
"The Air Force is particularly interested in cost-reduction ideas" that could lead to an "affordable" Conventional Strike Missile, the service said in its new industry solicitation.
For now, the Air Force is leaving open its options for the missile's propulsion system and the weapons it delivers.
The service will entertain "concepts involving new boosters, both solid and liquid, and a reusable booster system," it said. In testing, prototypes of the Conventional Strike Missile are using a so-called "Minotaur 4" propulsion system for ballistic launch, powered by retired ICBM boosters.
More than half of the flight trajectory, the Air Force said, must be nonballistic -- meaning that it departs from the arc-shaped path of traditional long-range missiles -- helping distinguish the boost-glide system's launch from that of a nuclear-armed ICBM. A number of U.S. lawmakers and Russian leaders have warned against building conventionally armed ballistic missiles that, when fired, could be mistaken for the onset of an atomic war.
The service is also "open to the use of dispense or nondispense concepts for the delivery of payloads to the target," according to the document. Whether the weapon will feature a single projectile or release submunitions will largely depend on the kinds of targets the Pentagon seeks to attack, industry officials say.
For example, if the missile is to go after an adversary's deeply buried command center, a penetrating warhead could be necessary; alternatively, the missile might deliver off-the-shelf precision-guided munitions for striking above-ground structures or vehicles.
Industry responses to the Air Force request for information are to be in the form of a "white paper" and a briefing -- lasting no longer than two hours, the service advised -- and are due by July 28.
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