Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have each been awarded a $900 million contract from the US Air Force, covering the development of the long-range stand-off (LRSO) weapon, the service’s replacement for its air-launched nuclear cruise missile inventory.
The USAF plans to purchase 1,000 LRSOs to replace its legacy Boeing AGM-86Bs, first fielded in the early 1980s and originally intended to operate with the service for only a decade. The air force will employ LRSO on the Boeing B-52, Northrop Grumman B-2, and next-generation Northrop Grumman B-21 bombers.
The weapon will take almost five years to develop and will enter the engineering, manufacturing and development phase in 2022, the USAF says.
A competitive selection of a single contractor will follow the preliminary design phase, with production expected to begin by 2026. The chief of the Air Force Global Strike Command told US lawmakers last year LRSO could be fielded by 2030.
The two contract awards would appear to cement LRSO's place in the air force’s nuclear recapitalisation plan. LRSO has come under some scrutiny from former Defense Secretary William Perry, who called the weapon “uniquely destabilizing”, and on Capitol Hill – although Democrat lawmakers failed to mount a bipartisan effort against it.
The USAF has offered few details on the nuclear weapon, but LRSO could have shorter range than the legacy cruise missile, which can fly more than 1,300nm (2,400km).
Service requirements constrained the length of the overall weapon system, which could give clues to the scope of the B-21’s internal weapons carriage capability, and suggests that the new bomber is not much larger than its predecessor.