US companies are still jockeying for position only days or weeks before a competition starts for perhaps the largest tactical missile contract for the next two decades.

The Joint Air-to-Ground Missile will replace thousands of ageing Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire and Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick missiles, and become the US armed forces' new standard for helicopters, fighters and armed unmanned air vehicles.

JAGM Apache    
VUIT-2 should increase the AH-64D Apache Longbow survivability

 "It's not a far stretch to understand this is the biggest programme to come along probably for the next quarter of a century," says Mike Riley, Raytheon's JAGM programme manager.

Raytheon is still assembling its team, but has already recruited a former competitor with Boeing. Lockheed has also not announced its plans, and says it is considering its options. BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman are also likely to be interested in the award, but so far remain officially non-aligned.

Riley confirms the Raytheon team is in discussions to recruit Northrop as a subcontractor, along with Alliant TechSystems. But Northrop officials remain non-committal. "We are still working our exact strategy on how and what to do about it," says a company executive. "We're considering a whole bunch of different options."

Also left unclear is a potential role for foreign suppliers besides BAE. Israel's Rafael and Europe's MBDA may have applicable missile and sensor technology, but so far neither has officially aligned with a US prime.

The JAGM contract race is a replay of the ill-fated Joint Common Missile programme, which the US Army cancelled less than a year after awarding a deal to Lockheed in 2004. The cancellation surprised industry observers, because Lockheed had not been faulted for any technical or cost problems.

But the army and US Navy last year revived the requirement for a new tactical missile featuring a tri-mode seeker and modular warhead. Both Lockheed and Raytheon can offer the army an off-the-shelf missile body and sensor.

Lockheed's offering would presumably be based on its previous JCM technology, which continued to receive internal and army funding to 2006. Raytheon, meanwhile, could offer a modified version of the ground-launched Precision Attack Missile, which is being upgraded by the army from a dual-mode to tri-mode seeker, providing terminal guidance to a moving target in any weather.

Raytheon views JAGM's seeker and missile body technology as demanding requirements, but the real technical challenge will come in the integration effort. "Most missiles go on one platform or maybe two," says Riley. "JAGM is going on six platforms initially, all of which have different levels of sophistication and capability."

The army intends to downselect to two teams in phase one and stage a fly-off. The winner will continue into a risk-reduction phase, followed by a full system development and demonstration period.

The US Air Force also may join the programme at a later date, with the Fairchild Republic A-10 also expected to be armed with JAGM. Last year, the USAF signed a deal with Raytheon to restart production of the AGM-65C Maverick, as its arsenal became depleted.

Source: Flight International