The Army is moving to cancel a joint Raytheon-Lockheed Martin program to develop a modular system of surface-attack missiles, amid poor test performance and concerns over the weapon's high cost.
But officials of Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems and supporters of the Non-Line-of- Sight Launch System (NLOS-LS) say the program is worth saving, for the unique precision-fire capabilities it can bring to the battlefield.
There's much at stake for the Army and for Raytheon, Southern Arizona's largest employer. The Pentagon has spent more than $1 billion on the NLOS-LS development program, which is about 90 percent complete. A planned long-term production contract could be worth more than $2 billion.
"We would love for this program to go forward - there's not a lot of investment required to bring it across the line," said Kevin Byrnes, vice president of business development for Army programs at Raytheon Missile Systems.
"We believe this is a very, very, relevant and capable system for the fights we have on our hands today and the fights we may get into in the future," said Byrnes, a retired four-star Army general who joined Raytheon in 2007.
"Missiles in a box"
The NLOS-LS is under development by Netfires LLC, a joint venture of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Raytheon Missile Systems leads development of the system's Precision Attack Missile; Lockheed is responsible for the launch unit.
Sometimes called "missiles in a box," the NLOS-LS is a system of 15 five-foot-long, precision-guided missiles contained in a box-shaped launch unit. The all-weather missile is guided to stationary or moving targets up to a range of about 24 miles by a combination of GPS satellite, infrared and laser guidance. It can automatically seek its target, be preprogrammed to a target, and can be redirected in mid-flight.
The Army awarded Netfires a $1.1 billion contract in 2004 to develop and demonstrate the system. It was part of the Army's Future Combat Systems, a program of highly networked vehicles and weapons.
The Navy also is considering the NLOS-LS system for use on its new line of coastal-combat ships.
When the Future Combat Systems was largely canceled last year amid Pentagon budget cuts, the NLOS-LS was spun out along with a few other programs deep in development.
But accuracy problems and the system's high cost have prompted Army planners to recommend canceling the NLOS-LS, analysts say.
Panel votes against it
The Army Systems Acquisition Review Council decided on April 22 to kill the NLOS-LS at the urging of Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, though development was 90 percent complete, according to Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-based public-policy group.
The final decision on the program's future will be made by Pentagon acquisition czar Ashton Carter, but the move by the Army's highest-level acquisition panel to shut the program down is "tantamount to termination," Thompson wrote on his Lexington blog.
The Army has not made public any recommendation on the program, though a spokesman said a recommendation is expected in the next few days.
Thompson said the Army review panel's decision against NLOS-LS was prompted partly by concerns over cost - at production levels, the PAM missiles are expected to cost $300,000 each, though Raytheon has said that cost could be cut to less than $200,000.
Reliability also has been an issue.
As of September 2009, the system was successful in eight of 13 test flights, for a success rate of 62 percent compared with a goal of 85 percent, according to a report by the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test & Evaluation. The report noted that the causes of the failures were later identified and fixed, but the system faces possible delays as it faces more complex tests.
What may have really sealed the program's fate, Thompson said, was the missile's failure in four of six flights in a critical Army "limited user test" at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in late January and early February.
Raytheon: Fixes made
Raytheon's Byrnes said the system's overall record prior to the limited user test was 12 successes in 17 tests, or 71 percent.
The problems identified in the recent tests - including some linked to a recent change in software - have been fixed, though they still require testing, he said.
"During testing, you want to find problems, in order to fix them," Byrnes said.
There's nothing in the U.S. arsenal to match the NLOS-LS system's portability and long-range, precision attack capabilities, he said.
Along with other Future Combat Systems programs, NLOS-LS was conceived directly as a result of lessons learned in Bosnia conflict in 1999, when NATO troops quickly inserted in the region lacked quick access to longer-range firepower on the ground, said Byrnes, who commanded the Army's 1st Cavalry Division in Bosnia.
More recently, the NLOS-LS system would have helped support relatively light units sent into Iraq and Afghanistan, where a fast-moving enemy requires quick deployment and precise fire support.
"If they can be connected by radio, they can reach that box and launch those rockets - it's that simple," Byrnes said.
Raytheon is working to bring costs down as well.
Raytheon can produce a family of three adaptable NLOS-LS weapons priced from $100,000 to $150,000 average cost per round at minimal added cost, said Michelle Lohmeier, deputy vice president of Raytheon's land-combat product line.
The lower-end versions would lack some of the advanced guidance and radio systems - perhaps requiring troops to spot enemies with laser targeting - but would still be highly capable of precision strikes, Byrnes said.
Meanwhile, the Navy said in a prepared statement that it is still studying the NLOS-LS system for use aboard its new Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS, which is built for shallow-water operations but lacks the weapons punch of larger vessels.
Support in congress
The NLOS-LS system has drawn some eleventh-hour support from members of Congress.
Thirteen House members - including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and six other members of the House Armed Services Committee - recently wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, urging them to keep the program going.
The lawmakers said the NLOS-LS system would fill a critical need and the program should move forward under an extended test plan.
They cited an alternative Army plan to extend testing of the NLOS-LS system for about a year, with new flight tests next spring.
"Terminating NLOS-LS at this stage would prevent the Army and Navy from fulfilling and urgent capability gap," the letter said.
(Paul Gorman, a retired Army four-star general, also has written a letter in support of the NLOS-LS; see his letter and the letter from the members of Congress, attached above as .pdf files)
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at 573-4181 or email@example.com