Lockheed Martin may have lost out on designing America's next-generation ICBM, but the company has been selected to help replace the vintage AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile. The US$900 million US Air Force Technical Maturation and Risk Reduction (TMRR) contract tasks the company with developing the technology needed to build the nuclear-capable Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) missile.

If you've ever wondered why the United States still maintains fleets of heavy bombers in an age of super sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses, part of the answer is the AGM-86. Operational since 1986, the variants of the Boeing-built cruise missile allowed the bombers to still pay a key role as a leg of the nuclear deterrent triad.

Today, bombers like the B-52 are unlikely to be able to penetrate enemy airspace to drop nuclear or conventional weapons on sites heavily defended by advanced anti-aircraft systems. But the air-launched AGM-86's compact Williams F107 turbofan jet engine, terrain-hugging radar navigation, and small radar signature allow bombers to stand off and launch cruise missiles from over 1,500 mi (2,400 km) to attack strategic targets.

The problem is that after 30 years, the basic design of the AGM-86 is obsolescent and the existing fleet's service life ends in 2020. Since this would leave the bomber force without a strategic mission, the Air Force is looking for a replacement with the LRSO program set to create a cruise missile capable of handling advanced integrated air defense systems from a significant standoff range.

According to Lockheed, the TMRR contract will focus on developing needed technologies, systems and subsystems for the new weapon system to meet the Engineering, Manufacturing, and Development milestone in 2022.

"LRSO will provide the next generation strategic deterrent missile for the air-launched portion of the nuclear triad," says David Helsel, LRSO program director at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. "Lockheed Martin's proven experience in cruise missile and strategic systems technologies will provide the most reliable, capable, sustainable and affordable program in defense of our nation and our allies."