A few years ago, Raytheon developed an unmanned decoy aircraft that mimics the radar signature of U.S. and allied strike aircraft, to throw off enemy air defenses.
A new version can essentially blind the enemy as well, with sophisticated radar-jamming gear.
On Thursday, Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems celebrated the delivery of its first Miniature Air-Launched Decoy-J (MALD-J), a jamming version of the original MALD.
About 200 people, including Raytheon employees, Air Force personnel and program subcontractors, attended Thursday's event, which featured a color flag guard, congratulatory cakes and a ceremonial signing of a "DD 250" form, used when contractors deliver products to the military.
In a video message to the attendees, Raytheon Missile Systems President Taylor Lawrence said the original MALD was the first of its kind when the first production model was delivered in 2009.
The MALD-J is another first. "This is the world's first stand-in jammer. … It's one of the most advanced systems ever produced by Raytheon," Lawrence said.
The original MALD hasn't been used yet in combat, but the system reached so-called initial operating capability - making it available for field use - in late July.
Col. Joe Skaja, chief of electronic warfare at the Air Combat Command and a former combat pilot, said the MALD represents a "groundbreaking" new capability.
A couple of months from retirement after a 30-year Air Force career, Skaja said he had pilot friends who were shot down in combat and rescued - something that motivated him during his five years on the MALD program. "My goal was, the next time we go to war, we won't have pilots shot down and have to be rescued," he said.
Raytheon Missile Systems, which has about 125 people working directly on the MALD program, has produced 48 MALD-Js and is on track to make 96 by year's end, said Scott Muse, Raytheon's MALD program manager, adding that the program has been on time and on budget from the start.
Raytheon won the MALD program in 2003 after a similar system under development by Northrop Grumman in the mid-1990s was scrapped by the Pentagon. The company has delivered about 500 of the original MALDs since 2009.
Last November, the Air Force authorized Raytheon to begin low-rate initial production of the MALD-J, and also exercised a $5 million contract option to convert the last planned lot of MALD production to the MALD-J version.
In late August, the company was awarded a two-year, $82 million contract to produce about 200 MALD-Js.
Muse said upgrades to the MALD-J are already on the drawing board, including a planned cargo-plane launching system and more powerful instrumentation. Eventual sales to allied nations also are under consideration, he said. The roughly 500 non-jamming MALDs could be retrofitted as MALD-Js, but no decision on that has been made, Muse said.
The MALD has been adapted to the B-52 bomber, which can carry 16 of the decoys, and the F-16 fighter jet, which can carry four MALDs, the Air Force says.
Col. Bill Ellis, senior materiel leader for the Air Force Long Range Systems Division, said the MALD and MALD-J will be used with other electronic-warfare weapons as needed, depending on the scenario. Other jamming platforms include the EC-130 Compass Call aircraft based at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the soon-to-be-retired Navy EA-6 Prowler and its replacement, the EA-18G Growler; and F-16 fighters equipped with jamming pods.
But while manned jamming jets generally perform their missions from "standoff" range - out of harm's way - the MALD can get much closer to enemy air defenses, Ellis said.
Each MALD costs about $375,000 to $400,000 each, but that unit cost is expected to come down as production ramps up, he added. By comparison, strike aircraft can cost $50 million to $100 million apiece - not to mention the human cost when an aircraft is shot down.
HOW IT WORKS
Raytheon's Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, or MALD, is launched into a combat zone ahead of attack planes, within a range of up to 575 miles.
While it's only a little more than 9 feet long, the MALD can be set to one of three settings (small, medium and large) to mimic progressively bigger aircraft.
For example, on an enemy's radar screen, a MALD on a "small" setting shows up as a fighter aircraft, while on "large" it would look like a B-52 bomber. The rocket-powered MALD can loiter over an area for more than 50 minutes before exhausting its fuel.
The MALD-J jamming version adds the option of blinding enemy air defenses, though just how it does that remains classified.
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