The battle to replace the Hellfire

Three of America's defense titans are angling to build the military's next generation of air to ground missiles, with billions of dollars on the line.

You know about the Joint Strike Fighter and Britain’s “joint strike frigate” — well there’s also a “joint strike missile” in the works. DoD wants the Joint Air to Ground Missile to replace three long-serving, near-legendary weapons: The Tube-Launched, Optically Tracked, Wire-guided missile known as TOW; the Maverick; and, probably best known, the AGM 114 Hellfire. Like the F-35, the JAGM continues the Pentagon’s trend of  super high-stakes competitions where all the marbles are on the line, holding the promise of thousands upon thousands of missiles, and billions of dollars, for whichever corporate giant can get the deal to build it.

The giants in question are Lockheed Martin, which builds the Hellfire, and a team comprising Boeing and Raytheon. And as Richard Burnett of the Orlando Sentinel writes, if Lockheed gets the JAGM contract it could be an economic boon to Central Florida for decades — but it, and the other two companies, are worried that the missile might not survive in Austerity America. As such, Lockheed is trying to rally the hometown crowd in support of the new weapon:

Lockheed Martin Corp. is playing the “jobs card” as it seeks to counter the budget-cutting climate in Washington. Earlier this month, the nation’s largest military contractor brought a contingent of company executives to its missiles unit in south Orlando to tout the economic benefits of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program in Central Florida (525 jobs and $800 million annually).

At a record cost approaching $1 trillion (a congressional figure that Lockheed disputes), the F-35 stealth jet is the frequent target of congressional budget-cutting proposals. Lockheed has been fending them off by focusing on the jobs the program creates amid the country’s persistently high unemployment. Now Lockheed is angling for another lucrative contract that has been threatened by budget cuts. Last week, it bid on the Army’s Joint Air to Ground Missile, successor to the Apache helicopter’s Hellfire missile.

Long a staple of Lockheed’s missile unit in Orlando, the Hellfire has generated hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue through the years. Winning JAGM would extend and expand that work, Lockheed says.

But Boeing and Raytheon would probably hasten to point out that Lockheed’s submission had some trouble in a live-fire test last year, Burnett reports, whereas their missile scored three hits on three tries — see one of them here. They want those billions, and those jobs, just as much.