The new missile Raytheon will help develop will replace the aging AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile, seen here being released from a B-52H Stratofortress.

U.S. Air Force

Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems has been awarded a $900 million contract to develop the nation’s next-generation air-launched nuclear cruise missile.

Frequent competitor Lockheed Martin was awarded a similar, 54-month contract to develop design concepts and technologies for the new Long Range Standoff weapon, the Air Force said Wednesday.

When those contracts are completed, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida will select a single contractor to further develop and produce the new weapon.

The contract awards were a blow to defense and aerospace giant Boeing, which has produced the current AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile since the 1980s.

Raytheon will perform work on the cruise-missile contract in Tucson, according to a Pentagon contract notice. The company already makes the Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile and a variety of major missile systems in Tucson.

A spokesman for Raytheon declined to comment on the contract announcement.

The Air Force says the contract awards keep the program on track to replace the aging AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile with modernized weapon capabilities designed for its nuclear bomber fleet, including the future B-21 strategic stealth bomber.

“This weapon will modernize the air-based leg of the nuclear triad,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in the announcement. “Deterrence works if our adversaries know that we can hold at risk things they value. This weapon will enhance our ability to do so, and we must modernize it cost-effectively.

The current Air Launched Cruise Missile was first fielded in the early 1980s with a 10-year design life, the Air Force said.

Under the contracts, Raytheon and Lockheed must develop the new missile technologies and demonstrate the reliability and maintainability of a replacement weapon, the Air Force said, noting that the aging AGM-86B “will continue to face increasingly significant operational challenges against emerging threats and reliability challenges until replaced.”

The Air Force wants to start fielding the Long Range Standoff Weapon in the late 2020s.

In May, Air Force Global Strike Command commander Gen. Robin Rand told the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee that the new missile will ensure the U.S. strategic bomber force “continues to hold high-value targets at risk in an evolving threat environment, including targets deep within an area-denied environment.”

Raytheon has a long history of developing cruise missiles, which generally fly low to avoid radar. The new missile is expected to have additional radar-evading “stealth” characteristics, though full requirements remain classified.

The company recently marked its 4,000th delivery to the Navy of the latest-generation Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile. The Tomahawk is carried aboard about 140 warships and submarines and has been fired more than 2,300 times in combat, including recent strikes in Syria and Yemen.

Raytheon inherited another nuclear cruise missile program in 1997 when it acquired the aerospace and defense business of Hughes Aircraft Corp., including the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile.

The low-observable, or “stealthy” air-launched cruise missile was originally designed and built by General Dynamics and was carried by the Air Force’s B-52H Stratofortress bombers. But production was cut back starting in 1993 and the AGM-129 was phased out of service by 2012.

For its part, Lockheed Martin makes the conventionally armed AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, a stealthy, air-launched cruise missile fitted on a variety of U.S. bombers and fighters.

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner