The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Tucson Tech column
Nov 08, 2011 (Menafn - The Arizona Daily Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on a critical, and growing, element of the nation's emerging missile defense system for years with its Standard Missile-3 interceptors.
The good news is, that monopoly should continue into the foreseeable future.
The bad news is, it's for all the wrong reasons.
Raytheon has been the sole source of SM-3 interceptors since adapting the weapon from its long-established Standard Missile series of ship-defense missiles.
The SM-3s are part of a plan to field progressively more capable interceptors at sea, and later on land, as part of the Obama administration's Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense of Europe.
The company is currently supplying the SM-3 Block IA interceptor, which is already deployed, and has been the primary contractor developing two advanced SM-3 versions, the Block IB and Block IIA, for fielding by 2012 and 2018, respectively.
And Raytheon is in a competition to develop the the next-generation SM-3 -- the Block IIB, a longer-range variant scheduled for deployment by 2020 -- with two defense giants, Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
But Congress is poised to drop developmental funding for the SM-3 Block IIB -- also known as the Next Generation Aegis Missile -- in the still-pending 2012 defense budget.
In mid-September, the Senate Appropriations Committee decided to completely cut the 123.5 million requested for the SM-3 Block IIB missile and shift those funds to shore up development of the SM-3 Block IB and IIA versions.
"The Committee is concerned that near-term requirements are underappreciated in order to fund uncertain long-term efforts," the panel said in its markup report, noting that the requirements and acquisition strategy remain in flux.
It didn't help that a SM-3 Block IB -- bearing a new Raytheon kinetic kill vehicle (a sort of non-explosive warhead) -- failed to intercept its target in a critical test flight on Sept. 1 over the Pacific Ocean. That failure is still being reviewed.
A missile-defense advocate said the overall budget talks are tangled up in deficit-reduction negotiations, but the chance of restoring the SM-3 Block IIB funding appears dim.
"Not very good. Slim," Riki Ellison, chairman and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance in Alexandria, Va., said on his cellphone from Capitol Hill.
The budget eventually will be hashed out in a House-Senate conference committee, but since the House defense budget was about 20 million higher than the Senate version, there's little chance to restore the SM-3 Block IIB cuts, Ellison said.
While Congress haggles over long-term deficit reduction, the White House recently signaled that it could go along with the Senate budget version, which essentially keeps the Pentagon budget flat at around 513 billion.
In a letter to Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and other congressional leaders, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew wrote that the proposed defense outlay "will sustain our strong military," while difficult cuts in State Department and other international programs are manageable.
The SM-3 Block IIB -- designed to intercept medium, intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles early in flight -- was somewhat of an easy target for budget cutters because it's still in early development, Ellison said.
He noted that congressional budget writers also recommended dropping funding for two other developmental missile-defense programs -- the Precision Tracking Space System, a satellite-borne sensor system, and the Airborne Infrared program, which would mount sensors on unmanned aircraft like the MQ-9 Reaper.
Ellison said there may be an opportunity to increase capabilities of the SM-3 Block IIA missile, which Raytheon is co-developing with Japan.
Like the Block IIB, the SM-3 Block IIA is a larger diameter missile with a longer range than the IA.
But the Block IA would have to be upgraded with a faster warhead and repositioned to fulfill a role as an early-stage interceptor, Ellison said.
Fixing the problem that caused the SM-3 IB to fail in September is the next, critical step, he said.
"They've got to get the (SM-3) IB right. That's the key thing," Ellison said, noting that the next test flight is planned for April.
Raytheon declined to comment specifically on the budget, citing a policy of not commenting on budget markups.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4181.
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