The US Air Force is expecting to award sole-source contracts to four firms to develop technology for its Long Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile programme.
Contracts will be awarded to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. "These firm fixed-price contracts will procure trade studies in support of the Long Range Standoff program in preparation for the Technology Development Phase," reads a US government contract solicitation notice. "The Government intends to solicit, negotiate and award to the contractors listed above using other than full and open competition procedures."
The new missile will most likely replace the aging and ever dwindling arsenal of nuclear and conventionally armed AGM-86 air launched cruise missiles. It will also likely replace the stealthy AGM-129, which is a somewhat newer design.
Responses to the tender must be in by 20 December. "The solicitation is further evidence that the air force is serious about fielding the next generation long-range strike family of systems, which will likely include standoff cruise missiles capable of penetrating contested airspace," says Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
"We have tended to focus on platforms in the discussion of air force modernization, equally important is the development of new generations of weapons," says Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute.
As integrated air defences become ever more lethal, the more difficult it is for existing systems to penetrate those defences. As such, the LRSO must be much stealthier and far more resistant to countermeasures than the weapons it replaces, Goure says. It must also have much longer range and potentially carry a variety of different payloads depending on the task. It could also be faster. Potentially, it might be able to loiter over an area or even be retargetable in flight.
Goure is unsure if the next generation weapon would necessarily replace the US arsenal of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, however. "We may be out of that business by the time the thing is actually fielded," he says. In addition to needing more security measures to ensure the safety of the warhead, the US government must be absolutely certain that the missile is able reach the chosen target for the nuclear mission. "Do I need something that is even more sophisticated?" he asks.
Gunzinger says he hopes that the new programme leads to a joint developmental effort with the US Navy to replace that service's Tomahawk cruise missiles. "Hopefully, this might become a joint programme that will produce a cruise missile that could be launched from US Navy as well as air force platforms," he says.
Goure says the potential exists that the two services could jointly develop such a weapon, but the USAF may not be willing to accept the compromises that might come with a naval missile design. Navy cruise missiles have to be able fit into the 21in torpedo tubes and the vertical launch tubes of a Virginia-class submarine, and therefore are restricted in size. "It's got to be no bigger than what the navy can fit," he says.