The Hunt for the Affordable Weapon(TM)
It’s a threat that makes modern defense planners shiver. Small turbojets are not uncommon, even as basic GPS receiver technology has become cheap, and guidance systems sophisticated enough to fly unmanned aerial vehicles are being developed all over the world. If fuel efficiency, speed, range, and pinpoint accuracy aren’t driving concerns, they wonder, how hard and how cheap could it really be to slap together a cruise missile from nearly off-the-shelf parts, then fire it from a container ship offshore, flying 200 miles or more to its designated target area? And in an age of falling technology curves, what cargoes might such a weapon contain?
Just as anti-ballistic missile technology is developing itself for the coming age of the rogue state, America’s nets are slowly being drawn up against the cruise missile threat from those states… and one day, of less-than-states. Persistent surveillance is reaching beyond the limitations of aircraft, and into constant surveillance using lighter-then-air platforms like JLENS tethered aerostats, HAA airships with huge flexible IRIS radars, and even Navy blimps. Fighters are being fitted with AESA radars as the cost of T/R modules drops, and interlocking land and naval defenses include SM-2/3 missiles, mobile SLAMRAAM and MEADS missile launchers, and longer-range systems like THAAD that can be used against air-breathing threats in a pinch. All this is being networked into a single net via developments like Cooperative Engagement Capability, and more. In time, logic will also demand investments like very long-range supersonic ramjet air-air missiles to extend the intercept circle of patrolling aerial platforms, or threaten key enemy assets like AWACS and tankers behind the front lines. All this and more lies ahead, born of necessity in America – and beyond.
The scope of this threat makes for a daunting scenario when one considers the long coastlines of nations like the USA/Canada, India, Australia, Britain, et. al. Beyond the threat, however, some American military planners looked into this crystal ball and saw something more – an opportunity. It’s also an opportunity for 3 firms…
- Deep Strike, and the One Punch Syndrome
- Affordable Weapon: Contracts & Key Events [updated]
- Additional Readings
Deep Strike, and the One Punch Syndrome
Over the last 25 years, US Naval doctrine has reshaped itself to emphasize a relatively new role: deep precision land strikes, recently codified as the “Sea Strike 21” pillar of future US naval doctrine. Missiles mounted on aircraft were the first wave, followed and supplemented by the
- GM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack (TLAM) cruise missiles that have come to very nearly define this capability in the modern era. Recent developments in Block IV of the Tomahawk program have been impressive, improving their capabilities while reducing the missiles’ cost from well over $1 million each to $750,000 or so. Even so, $750,000 per target is hardly cheap, and stocking all of the US Navy’s vertical launch cells with missiles while keeping adequate reserves remains something of a challenge. Ahead, research continues on the DDG 1000 Zumwalt Class “destroyer” and its Advanced Gun System/ Long-Range Land Attack Projectile (AGS/LRLAP), as well as future rail-gun technologies. The Zumwalt Class costs $3-5 billion per destroyer, however, and the program will be limited to 3 ships. Refitting existing ships with the 155mm AGS is problematic, so this can hardly be called a cheap, versatile, or pervasive solution.
In short, the US Navy is evolving to deliver a devastating land-attack punch – but not a prolonged or pervasive capability. That is a risky course.
Which brings us back to the COTS(Commercial Off-The-Shelf) Cruise threat, and its implications.
The ancient King Canute is famous for his inability to command the sea to halt at his pleasure. What’s less well understood is that he was wise enough to grasp this from the outset, then leverage the situation to make an important point about the limits of his influence. So it is with his compatriots in the modern era. If enemy rogue states will soon have these capabilities, due to technology trends that can no more held back than the sea could be held in place, why not push ahead and create them for use by advanced militaries as well?
This course is not exactly common within the gold-plated Pentagon culture, which usually pushes projects toward greater bundling and “silver bullet” capability at the expense of deployment time and unit cost. Even so, it remains true that many targets do not require the tiny CEP(Circular Error of Probability) radius of a Tomahawk Block IV, even as the means of achieving this continue to drop in price). Nor the full punch of its 1,000 pound warhead, or of its 1,250-1600 km/ 675-870 nm range. What about an Affordable Weapon, then, that costs $150,000 – or less? One that could be fired from any strike-length vertical launch cell or submarine in the fleet to hit targets with reasonable and growing accuracy, while carrying a smaller payload?
Doing the math, one finds that if only 1/5 of the planned Tomahawk Block IV missiles were replaced by these weapons, the USA could double its strike reserves, and potentially cut replacement costs for fired naval strike weapons by half or more.
Enter, then, the Affordable Weapon System (AWS) Program, backed by Congressmen like former House Armed Service Committee chair Duncan Hunter [R-CA, now retired], and by elements of the US military. The program began in 2002, but progress has been slow despite a successful set of early tests.
The AWS is launched by a solid-propellant rocket booster, and powered in flight by a small turbojet engine. After launch, the booster is dropped and the missile’s wings and tailfins are deployed. The missile then flies to a predetermined target or area using GPS guidance. In-flight retargeting is possible using line-of-sight or satellite-based data links, and the weapon can be programmed to loiter over a general target area until an observer directs it to a specific location.
The current plan is to carry these weapons on surface ships, submarines, and some US Navy/ USMC aircraft.
The AWS missile will be slow, flying at speeds reminiscent of private propeller-driven aircraft out to ranges of 600-1000 km or so, while carrying a 200 pound payload. This does not seem very impressive, at first glance. Then again, those of use who remember German daredevil Mathias Rust’s unauthorized 1987 flight into Moscow’s Red Square, at the controls of a private Cessna 172B propeller plane, aren’t inclined to sneer.
Affordable Weapon: Contracts & Key Events
Note that International Systems LLC became part of Titan Corp. in 2002, and then part of L3 Communications in 2005, via successive mergers. Unless otherwise specified, all contracts are issued by The Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD, USA.
Nov 5/08: European missile giant MBDA’s American subsidiary MBDA, Inc. in Westlake, CA has its $4.5 million Affordable Weapon Phase II option exercised by The US Naval Air Systems Command, through the PEO Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons office. Under this contract, MBDA Incorporated will define the best material approach for AWS, and complete risk reduction tasks.
MBDA’s team includes MBDA shareholder BAE Systems’ Incorporated Electronics & Integrated Solutions and Land & Armaments divisions, as well as Whitney, Bradley & Brown Inc. and radio/datalink manufacturer Harris Corporation. MBDA Nov 25 release.
Nov 4/08: L3 Communications Titan Corp. in San Diego, CA received a $5.6 million modification on a previously awarded firm-fixed-price contract (N00019-07-C-0071), exercising an option for the Phase II study and analysis to define the best material approach for AWS, and complete risk reduction tasks.
Work will be performed in San Diego, CA and is expected to be complete in November 2009.
Sept 18/08: The Boeing Co. in St. Louis, MO received an $8.6 million modification on a previously awarded firm-fixed-price contract (N00019-08-C-0019), exercising an option for the Phase II study and analysis to define the best material approach for AWS, and complete risk reduction tasks.
Work will be performed in St. Louis, MO and is expected to be complete in September 2009.
Sept 25/07: L-3 Communications Titan Corp. in San Diego, CA received a $5.8 million firm-fixed-price contract for a Phase I study and analysis of the Affordable Weapons System. Phase I will define missions and the system architecture.
Work will be performed in Westlake Village, CA and is expected to be completed in September 2008. All contract funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. This contract was competitively procured via Broad Agency Announcement (N00019-07-C-0071).
Sept 25/07: European missile giant MBDA’s American subsidiary in Westlake Village, CA received a $6.6 million firm-fixed-price contract for a Phase I study and analysis of the Affordable Weapons System. Phase I will define missions and the system architecture.
Work will be performed in Westlake Village, CA and is expected to be completed in September 2008. Contract funds in the amount of $3.7 million will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. This contract was competitively procured via Broad Agency Announcement (N00019-07-C-0072).
Sept 29/06: Harris Corp, Government Communications Systems Division in Palm Bay, Fla. received a $6.2 million cost-plus-fixed fee contract. The objective of the Affordable Weapons Data Links Insertion program is to develop, demonstrate and implement advanced manufacturing process and practices that markedly reduce cost and accelerated technology insertion associated with the transition of emerging weapons data links systems into munitions programs. Focus will be towards the pursuit of aggressive product and process technologies that can dramatically reduce acquisition costs from their current baseline. At this time, $150,000 have been obligated. Work will be complete October 2009. The US Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio issued the contract (FA8650-06-C-5505)
Sept 13/05: BAE Systems announces a contract for the Affordable Weapon Launching System from Titan Corporation of San Diego, CA. The contract aims to provide 2 complete launching systems, 20 canisters, and engineering services to Titan for their Affordable Weapon System.
Oct 12/02: The US Office of Naval Research announces that the Affordable Weapon has been tested through 6 flights on desert ranges in the Western United States, demonstrating launched at 45 degrees from a short rail, successful GPS guidance to target area, correct response to a forward observer’s command to divert from a pre-designated target and loiter instead, and acceptance of a new target from the forward observer via a data link. ONR declared The Affordable Weapon “ready for prototype production.”
May 20/05: International Systems, LLC in San Diego, CA received a $32.4 million modification to previously awarded cost-plus award fee/ cost-plus fixed-fee contract for the Fiscal Year 2005 demonstration, test and evaluation phase of the Affordable Weapon System. Under this award, Titan will produce approximately 85 missiles for demonstration, test and evaluation. The contract also includes work for the AWS launcher design and ship integration. Work will be performed in San Diego, Calif. (100%), and is expected to be complete by September 2006. The Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C. issued the contract. (N00024-04-C-6301). Titan Corp. press release.
April 18/02: International Systems LLC in San Diego, Calif received a $25.7 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for the continuing development and implementation of the Affordable Weapon Systems Program at the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The work to be performed under this research project is for investigation of commercial off-the-shelf technology to determine the feasibility of applying this technology in the development of low cost weapon system through innovative processes, assembly modification, testing and demonstration of the developed technology.
Work will be performed mainly in San Diego, Calif., and other testing facilities and is expected to be complete by April 2004. This is a follow-on contract to the initial contract competed and awarded on Sept. 13, 1999 under the ONR’s Broad Agency Announcement Program. The Naval Facilities Engineering Command Contracts Office in Port Hueneme, Calif. issued the contract (N47408-02-C-7312).
- L3 Titan – Affordable Weapon System (AWS)
- GlobalSecurity.org – Affordable Weapon
- Designation Systems – ONR/Titan Affordable Weapon
- Rep. Duncan Hunter ([R-CA], June 18/07) – Hunter Announces FY2008 Funding Initiatives
- Wikipedia – Mathias Rust