The US Army has taken two major steps towards fielding a ground-based system for detecting and shooting down cruise missiles.

Combating cruise missiles has been a major goal since 2003. All five Seersucker cruise missiles fired by Saddam Hussein's forces went undetected by allied sensors, although none of the weapons found their mark.

Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defence at the time, challenged the army in December 2003 to develop a system capable of defeating this threat, but progress has been slow.

Five years after Rumsfeld's edict, Raytheon has completed the design of a 74m (240ft)-long aerostat system under development for the US Army to sweep hundreds of kilometres of airspace for enemy aircraft and cruise missiles.

The five major elements of the $6.4 billion programme - named the joint land attack cruise missile defence elevated netted sensor (JLENS) - will now be manufactured for the first time, to enter an operational test phase starting in 2011.

Raytheon's suppliers will "verify weight estimates again as things become available", says Lucinda Fleury, Raytheon's JLENS programme manager.

Each $401 million JLENS system include a 74m aerostat, X-band fire control radar, airborne surveillance radar, vehicle-based communications and processing group and mobile mooring system.

The aerostat is tethered to the mooring system by a roughly 4,900m cable, with interwoven fibres providing power and a channel for ground-based control directions. Normal operating altitudes for the aerostat will hover around 10,000ft, Fleury said.

As the system matures, the programme has received interest from potential foreign customers, Fleury says, although she declines to elaborate.

Meanwhile, the army also has moved to acquire a new interceptor missile optimised for striking incoming cruise missiles at extended ranges up to 400km (215nm).

The current surface-launched advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (SLAMRAAM) is useful for short-range intercepts, but that is not an ideal solution if the incoming warheads carry chemical or biological agents.

On 13 February, the army invited industry to participate in a market survey for an low-cost, extended-range cruise missile interceptor. The army seeks a new missile that is compatible with the SLAMRAAM launcher.

Although the market survey describes the requirement as open to all bids, Raytheon may have a clear advantage. Since 2004, the company has been developing the advanced extended-range attack missile for this specific mission.

Source: Flight International