Air Force Taps Firms to Develop Cruise Missile Swarms

5th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron load crews load a AGM-86B air-cruise launch missile trainer onto a B-52H Stratofortess at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Feb. 26, 2014. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Aaron D. Allmon II) | By

The Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. contracts to develop new, lower-cost cruise missiles capable of flying in swarms to target enemy air defenses.

Lockheed, the world's largest defense contractor, in a release Wednesday announced it received a five-year $110 million contract from the lab to build the "Gray Wolf."

The weapon will be designed with "networked, collaborative behaviors (swarming) to address Integrated Air Defense (IAD) system threats around the world," according to the release.

The Bethesda, Maryland-based company's "concept for the Gray Wolf missile will be an affordable, counter-IAD missile that will operate efficiently in highly contested environments," Hady Mourad, director of the Advanced Missiles Program at the company's Missiles and Fire Control division, said in the release.

"Our system is being designed to maximize modularity, allowing our customer to incorporate advanced technologies such as more lethal warheads or more fuel-efficient engines, when those systems become available," he added.

The first of four development phases is set to run until late 2019, according to Lockheed. Work is expected to be complete in late 2024, according to a defense contract announcement.

Initial demonstrations will involve launching the weapon from an F-16 Fighting Falcon, but the system will be compatible with other fighter jets such as the fourth-generation F-15 Eagle, F-18 Hornet and the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as well as bombers such as the B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress, according to the company.

Northrop, based in Falls Church, Virginia, also won a $110 million contract to "for the design, development, manufacture, and testing of prototype affordable cruise missiles to advance networked collaborative operations technologies for defeat of enemy integrated air defense systems," according to a Dec. 20 contract announcement from the Pentagon.

Separately, the Air Force is also working to develop a new nuclear cruise missile.

The service in August awarded Lockheed and Raytheon Co., the world's largest missile-maker, contracts valued at roughly $900 million apiece to begin preliminary work on the new Long Range Standoff weapon.

Known as LRSO, the nuclear-capable cruise missile would replace the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile, known as ALCM, developed in the early 1980s, and fire from such aircraft as the B-52 Stratofortress, B-2 Spirit and future B-21 Long-Range Strike Bomber.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.