Missile Manufacturer Seeks to Capitalize on Booming Killer-Drone Business

12/12/2011
By Sandra I. Erwin

A Pentagon budget crunch threatens big-ticket weapons programs. But the demand for ever more popular unmanned aircraft is not only projected to grow within the U.S. military market but also expand on a global scale.
MBDA, a global manufacturer of 45 different types of missiles that are sold to 90 countries, is looking to capture a bigger piece of the drone-weapons market. In the United States, specifically, MBDA’s American subsidiary, MBDA Inc., is betting on the drone market by acquiring one of Northrop Grumman’s munitions businesses, the Viper Strike, a precision guided missile that can be deployed from unmanned aircraft.
The Viper Strike — a 44-pound air-launched guided munition — is a descendant of a Cold War weapon known as “brilliant anti-tank munition” that Northrop Grumman designed in the 1980s for the U.S. Army. In its current reincarnation, Viper Strike is used by the Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command as a precision-killer against moving vehicles or other targets on the ground. Marines launch the Viper Strike from a KC-130J tanker that was converted into a gunship. The munition currently is deployed on Hunter UAVs.
The Viper Strike purchase is MBDA Inc.’s first acquisition in the United States and is part of the company’s growth strategy, said company officials.
MBDA Inc. President and CEO Jerry Agee, said the future is bright for weapons such as Viper Strike, which can be launched from traditional systems such as the C-130, or from drones. One advantage that Viper Strike has over the more popular Hellfire missile is its size —  44 pounds compared to Hellfire's 100 pounds — and that it is quieter because it glides to its target, Agee said in an interview.
The Viper Strike combines a GPS inertial navigation system and a semi-active laser seeker. Once launched, it glides for five to six miles. Because it is smaller than Hellfire, it is marketed as a system that causes less risk to civilians in war zones. The U.S. military’s and CIA’s growing use of drone strikes has caused a backlash as these weapons in recent years have struck the wrong targets and killed civilians.
Viper Strike has been competing in the same marketplace as Hellfire for the last four to five years, Agee said. “We don’t see that changing.”
Defense budgets might be shrinking, but the drone business is growing, Agee said. “We see the same thing occurring around the world. It will take a few more years for some countries to get there,” he said. “But clearly, unmanned platforms, with smaller, high-precision weapons have a significant place in the market, both today and years in the future,” Agee added. “This is a market that is going to continue.”
The acquisition of Northrop’s business was approved by the Defense Department and made official at midnight Dec. 9. Once the deal became final, the changeover to a new corporate parent was rather simple: The signs in front of the plant were replaced, and employee badges that said Northrop Grumman now say MBDA.
MBDA now owns the former Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Huntsville, Ala. — on the Army’s Redstone Arsenal — and in Westlake Village, Calif.
MBDA is the world’s second largest missile maker, after The Raytheon Co.

Topics: Armaments, Gun and Missile, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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