The US Air Force may cancel the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile programme unless the government and the contractor can agree on a plan to resolve systemic reliability issues by 27 June. The air force has invited Lockheed to propose a way forward for the programme during a 30-day assessment period, but officials are not optimistic about the potential for a successful deal.

The USAF is prepared to replace JASSM with a new-start programme or order an alternative, such as an air-launched version of the Raytheon BGM-109 Tactical Tomahawk or MBDA's Storm Shadow.

JASSM is a stealthy, penetrating cruise missile with a 453kg (1,000lb)-class warhead. Although the capability remains a requirement for warfighters, the USAF is willing to scrap the programme for a more reliable product. "We do not know if we will be able to certify this programme," says Sue Peyton, assistant secretary of the air force for acquisition.

The $5.8 billion programme needs to be certificated in order to proceed, after breaching the so-called Nunn-McCurdy limit, a congressional rule for any programme that exceeds its original budget by at least 25%. So far, the air force has spent $2 billion on developing and producing the weapon.

The certification requirement allows the USAF to pressure Lockheed to resolve a perceived reliability crisis with JASSM. In 64 flight tests to date, the JASSM has recorded 39 successes and 25 failures, with the latter caused by a wide range of usually small manufacturing quality errors or design glitches.

The air force wants Lockheed to submit an acceptable plan that would elevate the missile's 58% reliability rate to a minimum of 75%, Peyton says. The service is willing to pick up some of the costs for the reliability improvements, but Lockheed's proposal must show "the air force they really, really want this programme" by also contributing to the extra cost, she adds.

The dispute reflects a philosophical disagreement between the air force and Lockheed about the proper approach for addressing the reliability issue, believes Dianne Wright, director for developing air warfare requirements at the US Department of Defense. While Lockheed has favoured fixing each new reliability problem as they arise, the air force wants a commitment from the contractor to develop a comprehensive solution to the problem, she says.

Lockheed officials were not available for comment.

The USAF has received the first 600 of 2,400 planned baseline missiles, with another 2,500 JASSM-ERs also expected to be ordered. A follow-on plan to develop a maritime strike version with an on-board datalink has been dropped, Wright says. Deliveries will also start to Australia in 2009.

Peyton has discussed her demands with Lockheed executives. "I have had those discussions and they are telling me they are very committed to this programme."

Source: Flight International