The US Air Force (USAF) has ended its Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) development competition early, issuing a sole-source contract to Raytheon.
Raytheon was competing with Lockheed Martin to design and build the service’s stealthy long-range, nuclear-weapon-tipped cruise missile as part of a Technology Maturation and Risk (TMRR) phase. Each company was awarded $900 million in 2017.
However, after reviewing both companies’ designs during preliminary design reviews, the USAF has ended the competition, chosing Raytheon as the sole-source contractor. The competition was not supposed to finish until 2022.
“Our competitive TMRR phase, which included both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon as the prime contractors, enabled us to select a high-confidence design at this point in the acquisition process,” says Major General Shaun Morris, USAF Nuclear Weapons Center commander and programme executive officer for strategic systems. “And this early off-ramp of a contractor is completely in line with the existing LRSO acquisition strategy, which included periodic reviews to assess contractor designs.”
The decision to end the competition early is unusual. It follows the July 2019 early conclusion of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent development competition, an effort to develop the USA’s next generation of nuclear ballistic missiles. That competition was halted after Boeing withdrew abruptly, protesting Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of rocket motor maker Orbital ATK. Boeing claimed control of Orbital ATK gave Northrop an unfair advantage.
Apparently sensitive to the comparison, the USAF notes that “the off-ramping of a contractor in the TMRR phase is consistent with the LRSO acquisition strategy and different than Boeing’s decision last year not to bid on the [engineering and manufacturing development] contract for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent”.
The LRSO and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent are two important parts of the USA’s nuclear triad, a strategy emphasising three options for launching nuclear attacks. The LRSO would be air-launched from a bomber such as the Boeing B-52B Stratofortress or the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider. Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ballistic missiles would be launched from silos in the USA. The third leg of the nuclear triad are ballistic missiles launched from submarines.
With the early conclusion of the LRSO and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the US Department Defense now has two programmes moving towards engineering and manufacturing development, and subsequent production, without full competitions.
It is not clear why the USAF ended the competition early, though the service says it plans to accelerate some planned development and evaluation activities formerly planned for the engineering and manufacturing development phase, such as flight testing. In the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act, the US Congress mandated that the Pentagon create a plan to accelerate LRSO development, purchase and fielding.
Under its new LRSO plan, the USAF aims for Lockheed Martin to remain part of the programme in an undisclosed role.
“This is not a down-select per se,” says Elizabeth Thorn, LRSO system programme manager. “Instead, we are reframing our relationship with Lockheed Martin to focus on specific technology maturation we believe either has future applicability for the final LRSO design or will reduce overall programme risk.”
Lockheed Martin says it plans to continue to work on the LRSO programme.
“Lockheed Martin values our partnership with the US Air Force and we’re working together to close out our work on the TMRR phase and adjust our role on the LRSO programme,” the company says. “We’ve supported our nation’s nuclear triad for more than 60 years and look forward to working with the USAF to support the LRSO mission, specifically leveraging our sensor technology and nuclear certification and surety expertise.”
The LRSO is to replace the AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). The USAF wants to operate the ALCM through 2030.
Raytheon says it anticipates beginning contract negotiations with the USAF for the engineering and manufacturing development phase in FY2021. It expects a contract to be awarded in FY2022.