The Air Force has awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co. $900 million contracts each to start work on the next nuclear-capable cruise missile, a project criticized by Democratic lawmakers as too costly.
Each company will now take 54 months — nearly five years — to “mature design concepts and prove developmental technologies for the new Long Range Standoff weapon,” the Air Force said in a statement.
“This weapon will modernize the air-based leg of the nuclear triad,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a statement. “Deterrence works if our adversaries know that we can hold at risk things they value. This weapon will enhance our ability to do so, and we must modernize it cost-effectively.”
The new missile program, referred to as LRSO, is highly classified, so much so that the Air Force would not release the exact value of both contracts.
After the lengthy technology development phase, the Air Force in fiscal 2022 will pick either Lockheed or Raytheon for the LRSO engineering, manufacturing and development phase.
The missile is meant to be launched from an aircraft, and the Air Force intends to use it with its B-52, B-2 and the yet to be made B-21 Long-Range Strike Bomber starting in the late 2020s.
The program, though still getting on its feet, has already been blasted by lawmakers as costing too much money.
House Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Adam Smith (Wash.) said in March that expensive nuclear programs like the LRSO would pull money away from other priorities such as shipbuilding and military readiness.
He added that he’d advise President Trump against accelerating LRSO, arguing that the United States has than enough nuclear weapons to deter possible acts of aggression.
Also in March, Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and eight other Democratic senators introduced a bill meant to slow development of LRSO by capping its funding at fiscal 2017 levels until the administration finalizes its nuclear posture review.
The bill was referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee but has not moved since.
The LRSO does, however, have the backing of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who said in March that he “would be willing to support” speeding up the fielding of LRSO due to threats from Russia.
The LRSO will replace the aging Boeing-made AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which became operational in the early 1980s. The Air Force continues to use the ALCM, though it only has a 10-year lifespan.
“The aging ALCM will continue to face increasingly significant operational challenges against emerging threats and reliability challenges until replaced,” the service said in the statement.
Boeing had bid but lost out on the new LRSO contract.