Pentagon officials have said it ad nauseam: More competition in the defense industry is needed to spur innovation and stem rising weapon costs.
In a weapons market that will become increasingly cutthroat as budgets decline, such statements are not being taken lightly by companies that are eager to challenge incumbent contractors.
“We are big fans of competition,” says Doug Denneny, vice president of MBDA Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Europe’s largest missile manufacturer.
MBDA has manufacturing plants in France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany. The U.S. subsidiary, based in Arlington, Va., opened a research and manufacturing facility in Westlake Village, Calif., and an assembly plant in Huntsville, Ala.
The company hopes to gain a foothold in the market for air-launched ground-attack missiles that is now dominated by Lockheed Martin’s Hellfire. The Army for years has been working on a more modern version of the Hellfire, called the joint air-to-ground missile, or JAGM. But funding cuts and delays in the program have opened a window for MBDA to jump in and suggest that it can offer the Pentagon a comparable weapon that is already in the inventory of the U.S. military’s closest ally.
MBDA is marketing its Brimstone as a more practical, cost-saving alternative, Denneny says. “It is already in production and in operation in Afghanistan by the U.K. Royal Air Force.”
The Army’s program executive office for missiles at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., which oversees the JAGM program, has not yet agreed to consider new competitors, but may do so in a couple of years. Up until last summer, there were two contenders, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. The Army in July knocked Raytheon out of contention because of budget cuts and concerns that the company’s JAGM design was too complex.
Lockheed is now the only contractor that continues to receive Army funding to complete its JAGM design.
MBDA is offering Brimstone to the U.S. Air Force for its Reaper drones, and to the U.S. Navy for the F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft and for the Littoral Combat Ship.
The company acknowledges that an Army contract is a long shot. And it has not been shy about playing the industrial base card. “Future versions of Brimstone for the United States will be manufactured in the United States,” says Denneny. The company has laid out a factory for Brimstone production at its Huntsville facility, and expects to buy tooling and machinery once it secures a contract.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and other senior officials have repeatedly asked the private sector to help the Pentagon save money and protect the domestic supply base, says Denneny. “We are excited for the opportunity to demonstrate this.”
A growing U.S. reliance on drone strikes in counterterrorism campaigns has created a demand for weapons that can hit moving targets more precisely than Hellfire missiles, he says.
The Royal Air Force, which flies U.S. Reaper drones alongside American forces, prefers to arm its remotely piloted aircraft with Brimstone missiles, instead of Hellfires.
There is no official data on which missile is more accurate, as the U.S. government has not conducted a side-by-side shootout. Denneny says the Brimstone’s “dual-mode” targeting in itself gives it an advantage. That means it has two sensors: a laser, like Hellfire, and a second guidance system called active millimeter wave seeker. The technology, developed in the 1980s for ground and anti-ship weapons, was adapted for air-launched missiles. The missile’s radar homes in on the signal that it determines to be the target.
The U.S. Army has a radar-guided version of the Hellfire, called Longbow, which is launched only from Apache helicopters. In JAGM, the Army is pursuing a dual-mode seeker to make Hellfire missiles more accurate. The Defense Department has spent at least $3 billion on the program over the past decade.
MBDA would not provide specific prices for its dual-mode missile. Unofficial estimates range from $150,000 to $170,000 per missile, depending on the numbers ordered. The newest version of the laser-guided Hellfire costs about $120,000. The eventual cost of the dual-mode JAGM is unknown, as it is still in the design phase.
Denneny insists that MBDA is under no illusion that Brimstone can replace Hellfire, but believes there is a niche role for its dual-mode seeker missile. “We just want Reaper to have Brimstone to hit moving targets,” he says.
MBDA is confident it can sell Brimstone to the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Its longer-term goal to capture Army sales appears more improbable, though. The Army has a decades-long investment in Hellfire and is fully invested in JAGM.
The Army officer who oversees JAGM says the goal is to have more than one contractor in the program.
“Lockheed is not guaranteed to be sole source going forward,” says Col. James S. Romero, project manager for joint attack munition systems. Even though Raytheon was cut from the technology development phase of JAGM, the Army would like to see the company fix problems in its original design and re-enter the competition, Romero tells National Defense. “We would consider others, too. But we don’t have an approved acquisition strategy yet.”
He estimates it would be at least 2015 or 2016 before the Army is ready to proceed to the next phase of JAGM and solicit new industry bids.
Romero says he would not rule out competitors other than Lockheed or Raytheon, but is not convinced that outsiders can meet the stringent performance specifications of the JAGM. “It’s always in the details,” he says. From what he knows so far about Brimstone, says Romero, he is not certain it would comply with Hellfire standards, protocols and configurations. “I don’t believe they meet any of that,” he says.
Romero says he would also be wary of trying to integrate a new dual-mode seeker into the Hellfire airframes and adding more expenses to the program. “What we are not going to do is drive significant cost on to the platform to integrate something new that we don’t understand or haven’t developed, or don’t have a pedigree of history on.”
After years of delays and budget cuts, the Army’s priority is to move JAGM forward, Romero says. “We think the program is well positioned.” Having only one contractor is not ideal, he recognizes, but his office is still hopeful that Raytheon will come back to challenge Lockheed.
“We are very interested in what Raytheon is going to choose to do,” says Romero. The Army is “in discussions” with Raytheon, he adds, about the possibility of having the company fund software development that could help improve the performance of its JAGM design. “Raytheon has to make some decisions about how much they are going to invest to stay competitive,” Romero says.
Raytheon’s losing JAGM proposal had a tri-mode seeker. In addition to the laser and the active millimeter wave, it includes a third guidance technique based on infrared heat-seeking imaging.
The Army decided its requirements could be met with a dual-mode seeker. “There was more risk involved with the Raytheon approach,” says Romero.
Raytheon officials say the company has not yet decided whether it wants to spend its own
money to get back into JAGM.
“We’re in the process of evaluating our way ahead,” says J.R. Smith, business development manager of Raytheon Missile Systems.
“We think it’s important for the Army and the taxpayer to have a competition for JAGM,” he says in an interview. “This is a very large program.”
He disagrees with the Army’s assessment of the tri-mode seeker as a high-risk technology. “Raytheon has partnered with the Army for over 10 years on tri-mode seeker technology,” Smith says. The company is about to begin producing the seeker for the Air Force’s small-diameter bomb. “It’s a proven technology” in which the U.S. government has invested more than $2 billion, he says.
“When you have three sensors integrated, you get a more accurate aim point, and better performance against countermeasures,” he says.
Smith says the Army would benefit from reopening the competition, regardless of whether Raytheon decides to participate. Brimstone would be a legitimate competitor, he says. “We do strongly support competition, whether from us, or another company like MBDA. That’s important. They should be given the opportunity to do so.” Photo Credit: MBDA Inc.