The US Air Force is moving closer to launching a programme to arm fighters and unmanned aircraft systems with the capability to shoot down ballistic missiles.
Preliminary findings of a joint study with the US Missile Defense Agency indicate that the air-launched intercept concept is technically feasible, says air force chief of staff Gen Norton Schwartz.
"When the object is to attack missiles early in the ascent phase the kinematics of the question work," Schwartz says. "I don't have any doubt that we'll have the sensors and the connectivity to effectively hit the target."
Both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are working on separate programmes to convert weapons for the air-launched intercept role.
Lockheed is proposing to fire a containerised PAC-3 Patriot missile at mainly terminal phase targets. Another concept studied by the company proposes to adapt the kill vehicle from a terminal high-altitude air defence interceptor, which could be stored in an internal weapons bay.
Raytheon, meanwhile, is offering to convert the AIM-120 Amraam air-to-air missile with a second-stage rocket booster, a modified AIM-9X Sidewinder seeker and new solid divert and attitude control system.
The so-called network centric air defence element (NCADE) concept would leverage the USAF's AIM-120 support infrastructure, but would be more costly to develop than Lockheed's PAC-3-based air-launched hit-to-kill (ALHTK) concept.
Lockheed has projected the ALHTK development cost at a minimum of $130 million, while Raytheon says the NCADE development would total about $450 million, followed by $1 million to purchase each missile.
Schwartz acknowledges that he is not sure if the USAF can afford to pay for either missile. "I don't have a sense of cost and so on," he says, adding that he also hasn't made "a judgement of whether it means less of this or more of that. But it's promising."