USAF pulls plug on Boeing penetrator cruise missile

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Service withdraws support funding for inventory of around 50 bunker-busting weapons

The US Air Force has decided to abruptly retire the penetrator version of a 453kg (1,000lb)-class cruise missile only around five years after it entered service, according to industry sources.

The decision to retire the stockpile of about 50 Boeing AGM-86D Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles has not been formally announced, but the USAF has quietly deleted all funding to operate and maintain the weapons in its fiscal year 2008 budget request submitted to Congress in February.

If the retirement stands, the US military would lose the only 453kg-class weapon in its inventory able to strike deeply buried targets at ranges up to 2,500km (1,350nm).

"No-one seems to be clear on what the real purpose of zeroing out the -86D was," says John Griffiths, Boeing programme manager for the CALCM and nuclear-armed Air Launched Cruise Missile family of weapons. Griffiths is optimistic the air force's programme office for CALCM, with the support of the US Strategic Command, will be able to restore the $2 million needed to keep the AGM-86D inventory alive.

In 1999, the air force decided to convert about 50 ALCMs to the conventional AGM-86D penetrator. It introduced the new variant from 2001 and a number were successfully used in Iraq.

But the AGM-86D lacks a major capability that had helped to justify its development. The air force intended to integrate a new fuze that could sense voids and count layers, allowing the weapon to detonate at a precise spot in a tunnel or bunker complex. That technology - the Alliant Techsystems hard-target smart fuze - failed to work properly, and is now used with a standard time-delay setting.

The US Defense Threat Reduction Agency is funding a programme to integrate a smaller version of EADS's programmable intelligent multipurpose fuze with the AGM-86D by 2010. This could also be integrated with the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 JASSM and Raytheon AGM-154C JSOW penetrator.