WASHINGTON ― Space emerged as Lockheed Martin’s business area with the highest net growth, driven by hypersonic weapons programs and an anticipated next-generation interceptor award, CEO James Taiclet said Tuesday on the company’s third-quarter earnings call.

But Lockheed reported that Space’s operating profit in the third quarter of 2020 decreased $61 million, or 20 percent, compared to the same period in 2019. There was a decrease there of $50 million due to lower equity earnings from the corporation’s investment in United Launch Alliance ― a joint venture with Boeing.

The space segment’s net sales in the third quarter of 2020 increased $163 million, or 6 percent, compared to the same period in 2019. The segment earned $90 million for government satellite programs due to higher volume (primarily Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites), and about $60 million for strategic and missile defense programs due to higher volume (primarily hypersonic development programs).

“When we speak of hypersonics, I think there’s a very big upside there because there’s a very big threat. It’s getting worse out of Russia and China, and the U.S. and its allies are going to have to meet it both on offensive and defensive hypersonic systems,” Taiclet said, adding that classified space systems are a “wide-open field.”

Taiclet also said he expects the government will work with industry to counter emerging kinetic and non-kinetic threats to space assets, ground stations and the links between them. He pointed to the Space Development Agency’s selection of Lockheed, which is one of the firms building its “transport layer” — a low-Earth orbit constellation of satellites that can transfer data globally through optical intersatellite links.

Taiclet touted the satellite constellation’s eventual ability to transmit data at high speeds to aircraft, ground troops, and surface and undersea vessels as synergistic with Lockheed’s push into 5G networking, which Taiclet calls “5G.mil.” A telecom executive before he joined Lockheed in June, Taiclet speculated that the company’s toehold will give it an advantage as competition in this business area heats up.

SDA Director Derek Tournear previously stated that the transport layer will be the space component of Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, a Pentagon effort to connect any sensor to any shooter across domains and services. The effort now has a “C” at the beginning — CJADC2 — for “Combined.”

Lockheed announced last week it will partner with Aerojet Rocketdyne to compete for the Next Generation Interceptor program, which is run by the Missile Defense Agency. The MDA plans to downselect to two companies, with an eventual winner expected to have a system ready in 2028.

On Tuesday’s call, Taiclet said Lockheed’s acquisition of Integration Innovation Inc.'s hypersonics portfolio this month was to provide a new capability in thermal management for hypersonic glide bodies.

The deal with i3 of Huntsville, Alabama, was part of a broader mergers and acquisition strategy, that includes joint ventures and commercial partnerships, to add to the company’s “technological firepower” in areas like mission systems, he said.

“We plan to be active, but we plan to be very, very prudent,” he noted.

It was disclosed last week that the Pentagon’s nascent hypersonic missile, during a March 19 test in Hawaii, hit within 6 inches of its target. The Army is developing a ground-launched capability and plans to field a battery-sized hypersonic weapon to soldiers by 2023.

Lockheed executives were upbeat about space launch. Under a recent Pentagon award, potentially worth billions of dollars, to launch national security payloads over the next five years, ULA will receive 60 percent of the contracts and SpaceX will get 40 percent.

Asked Tuesday about competition between ULA and SpaceX, Lockheed Chief Financial Officer Ken Possenriede acknowledged SpaceX as “more than an emerging threat right now.”

“Of the recent competitions we’ve had with them, we’ve been pleased with where ULA landed relative to SpaceX,” Possenriede said. “We also think we now have a price point that is compelling to customers that will allow ULA to get its fair share of awards over SpaceX.”

Nathan Strout contributed to this report.