The US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the US Air Force are in talks about the joint development of a new interceptor that can be launched by a fighter jet or unmanned aircraft system at ballistic missiles.

The talks are expected to jump-start the next phase of a two-year-old competition between Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, which are developing modified versions of the PAC-3 Patriot and AIM-120 advanced medium range air-to-air missile, respectively, for the emerging requirement.

Since 2007, the MDA has provided seed money to both companies to design the weapons and perform hardware tests. But, facing a $1.2 billion overall budget cut, the MDA balked at funding full-scale development with both concepts costing between $137 million and $450 million.

In April, Lockheed reported that the USAF's headquarters staff had expressed support for the company's $137 million plan to deliver an air-launched PAC-3 missile capability within 33 months.

The USAF's interest has since led to the discussions with MDA, and a decision on a path forward is expected in December, says Mike Trotsky, Lockheed's vice-president for air and missile defence. The discussions are likely to lead to a new competition for a contract to deliver an air-launched interceptor, he adds.

Raytheon confirms it is also aware of the ongoing talks, and believes it is well positioned to win the contract.

"We'd even go so far as to say that it's emerging as the preferred option in the study," says Mike Booen, Raytheon's vice-president of missile systems. "It's the only solution to go exo-atmospheric and can be internally carried by the USA's frontline fighters."

Raytheon has named its concept the network centric air defence element, and has previously proposed delivering 20 missiles after a $450 million development programme. The concept modifies the AIM-120 with a new seeker and second-stage booster rocket.

Lockheed's concept is called the air-launched hit to kill, and involves launching the PAC-3 from a sealed canister ejected from the hardpoint of a fixed-wing aircraft, such as the Boeing F-15 or General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.

Source: Flight International