Tucson tech: Raytheon readies to start production of Excalibur Ib

U.S. Army gunners shoot an Excalibur round from a M-777 howitzer in January at Forward Operating Base Frontenac near Kandahar, Afghanistan. Raytheon Missile Systems is readying a production line for the Excalibur Ib.

Even as deep defense budget cuts loom, Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems is poised to start a new production line for precision-guided artillery shells.

Raytheon recently announced it will start low-rate-initial production of the Excalibur Ib precision-guided artillery projectile, a 155mm, GPS satellite-guided shell that can strike within about 13 feet of its target at a range of more than 20 miles.

The Army awarded Raytheon a $56.6 million fiscal year 2012 production contract for the projectile in December. Contract options through fiscal year 2016 include an undetermined number of additional shells to support U.S. forces' requirements, training and foreign military sales, Raytheon said.

The award followed a competition to develop the next generation of the Excalibur, which was originally developed by Raytheon and rushed into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007.

Co-developed with Swedish defense contractor BAE Systems/Bofors, the weapon proved effective and popular particularly among Marine Corps units in Afghanistan. More than 500 Excalibur rounds have been fired in combat including one shell fired by Marines in Afghanistan last June that hit its target from a record range of 36 kilometers (about 22 miles).

The Excalibur Ib round was designed to improve reliability and lower unit costs while maintaining high precision, Lt. Col. Josh Walsh, the Army's Excalibur program manager, was quoted as saying in a Raytheon news release.

The Excalibur Ib has built-in flexibility to adapt to future needs through software changes and capability upgrades, said Michelle Lohmeier, vice president of Army programs at Raytheon Missile Systems.

Production of the Excalibur Ib will start when the production run for the prior, Excalibur 1a-2 version is completed sometime in the fourth quarter, Raytheon spokeswoman Jackie Gutmann said.

Excalibur is a big program, but it could have been much bigger.

The Army originally planned to buy about 30,000 of the guided shells, but in 2010 those plans were scaled back, and current plans call for buying only about 6,250.

One the goals for the Ib version of Excalibur was to cut the cost from more than $100,000 per shell to around $47,000 each.

The huge cut in expected orders meant the unit cost stayed high - about $80,000 per shell according to the latest Pentagon estimates.

That change triggered a review under what is known as the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment, a 1980s federal law that requires an investigation when defense program costs skyrocket beyond original estimates.

Last year, a study conducted by the Rand Corp. for the Pentagon concluded that the nearly 80 percent production cut was the main reason for the high unit cost of the Excalibur. But the report also cited inaccurate program estimates early on, concept and technology changes, minor technical issues and the "urgent operational need" for the weapon.

First Alabama missile

It was a milestone for Raytheon, but perhaps a bittersweet moment for Tucson.

Raytheon Missile Systems announced last week that it had delivered the first complete Standard Missile-6 to the U.S. Navy from its new integration and testing facility in Huntsville, Ala.

The SM-6 is the latest in Raytheon's Standard Missile series of ship-defense missiles, defending against fixed-wing planes, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles.

Raytheon opened the doors of its $75 million, 70,000-square-foot, "all-up-round" production facility at Redstone Arsenal in November. The facility has the latest processes for missile production, Raytheon says. Raytheon passed over Tucson for the new plant in 2010, citing among other things the lack of adequate buffer zone between the local Raytheon plant at Tucson International Airport and surrounding development.

AudioEye Edison finalist

Tucson-based AudioEye Inc. has been named a 2013 Award Finalist for the Edison Awards.

The company, which has developed an audio Internet content-management system and media player, will be honored by the Edison Awards in Chicago on April 25.

AudioEye is based at the University of Arizona Science and Technology Park.

AudioEye CEO Nathaniel Bradley said the company's software offers a better way to access the Internet, not only for mobile, multitasking users, but for those who are vision-impaired.

The Edisons originally were established in 1987 by the American Marketing Association.The award organization has been independent since 2008.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

Senior reporter covering business and technology for the Arizona Daily Star/Tucson.com