Proponents of joint-service weapon programs will be watching closely the outcome
of an upcoming Pentagon review for a new air-to-ground missile, to be launched
from Army, Marine Corps and Navy aircraft.
If the Defense Department’s top procurement authorities give the program
the green light later this month, the Army will select a contractor to begin
developing the “joint common missile,” a sophisticated weapon that
not only must operate with multiple services’ aircraft, but also must
pack—in a relatively small missile—three different types of guidance
systems. The JCM is intended to replace the battle-tested Hellfire and Maverick
The Army originally had planned to award a contract a year ago, but the program
was held up both by bureaucratic delays and concerns about costs. The Army’s
director of force development, Maj. Gen. James J. Grazioplene, recently told
industry officials that he feared the joint common missile would be too expensive,
after having seen estimates that ranged from $400,000 to $600,000 per missile.
According to his assessment, only after six years and more than 40,000 missiles
in production would the price tag drop to a more acceptable $100,000. To make
the missile more affordable, he said, the Army may consider downgrading the
tri-mode seeker to a dual-mode system, he added. “If we are not careful,
we’ll ask too much from one missile.”
The entire project could be worth $5 billion, assuming the services buy at
least 54,000 missiles.
The Army said it wants to keep the per-unit cost for JCM at approximately $100,000.
By comparison, the current laser-guided Hellfire costs about $60,000, and the
radar-guided Longbow Hellfire is approximately $150,000 per unit. Industry sources
said the JCM could be produced for less than $100,000.
The tri-mode seeker will package a semi-active laser, a millimeter-wave radar
and a heat-seeking infrared sensor. Current Hellfire missiles are either laser-guided
or millimeter-wave radar guided. The Maverick is a heat-seeking missile that
uses infrared and TV sensors to locate the target.
Each of the three guidance technologies—laser, millimeter-wave radar
and infrared—has been employed for years, in various weapons. Mixing all
three in a small enough package to fit on the nose of a 108-pound missile is
technically complex, but achievable, experts said.
The missiles for the Army Apache and Marine Corps Cobra gunships will have
a range of 14 km, which is about twice the reach of Hellfire. The Navy version—to
be dropped from F/A-18 fighters—will have a range of about 28 km. Naval
aviators would target enemy ground vehicles and enemy patrol boats at sea. What
makes the JCM attractive, officials said, is the missile’s performance
in adverse weather, in strike operations against moving targets and in urban
combat. One of the requirements, for example, is to be able to penetrate an
18-inch concrete wall and have the warhead detonate on the other side.
The three contractors in the program include the current manufacturers of the
Hellfire and Maverick, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, respectively. A third competitor
is a Boeing-Northrop Grumman team. The contenders spent several million dollars
of their own money during the past year to fix “risk” areas the
Army pinpointed, such as the warhead, the fuze and the rocket motors. The competition
has been fierce, because, as one contractor noted, “there aren’t
many missile programs out there to bid on.” The winner then will have
to select one of the two other bidders to be the back-up supplier for the seeker
Whoever wins will not necessarily be guaranteed any large production orders,
but will begin what the Army calls a “risk mitigation” phase, when
the program will be on a de facto probation, until the contractor proves the
design works as promised. If successful, the company would continue engineering
and development work until 2008, and would begin delivering missiles by 2009
Much of the current Hellfire inventory—built in the 1980s—has exceeded
its shelf life, according to Army estimates. The Maverick was first introduced
The common missile will look very much like the Hellfire—about 70 inches
long, 7 inches in diameter, weighing 108 pounds. By comparison, the Maverick
is about 98 inches long and weighs at least 400 pounds.
Apache attack helicopter aviators are the heaviest users of Hellfires. Even
though the Air Force chose to not participate in the program, industry sources
speculate that the joint common missile may one day be launched from Air Force
unmanned aircraft that currently are armed with Hellfires, such as the Predator.