WASHINGTON — Boeing has held a monopoly on the dual-mode bomb market, but the US Air Force may be gearing up to widen the playing field to other potential competitors.
The service on Aug. 5 released a "sources-sought" notification indicating its interest in finding alternate vendors for Boeing's joint direct attack munition (JDAM) that could potentially enter the market as a second supplier of the heavily-demanded weapon.
Boeing's JDAM kit upgrades "dumb bombs" into guided munitions that use an inertial guidance system and GPS to locate and destroy targets. Demand for the munition among Air Force, Navy and foreign governments is expected to ramp up to an expected 36,500 units per annual lot, starting with a contract expected in February 2019, the sources-sought notification indicated. That contract could include up to a decade of JDAM acquisition, valued at $400 million annually.
During an Aug. 10 briefing with reporters, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the service released the solicitation in order to get more information about precision weapons, which have become more highly desired as the US continues a barrage of airstrikes against the Islamic State terrorist group in the Middle East.
"We're keeping our options open," she said. "And so, information can be power here. We want to know what else is out there, and then we'll make a final judgment call after that."
The Air Force is working with Boeing to increase the company's production capacity, she continued. "But that's not to say that more couldn't also be helpful. And so, that's why we're at least exploring these other options."
One of those candidates could be Lockheed Martin’s "dual-mode-plus" laser guided bomb (LGB), which the company is developing with internal funds. Like the JDAM, the weapon comprises an existing munition — in this case Lockheed’s Paveway II bomb — paired with an inertial navigation system and GPS.
Joe Serra, director of precision guided systems at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, declined to confirm whether Lockheed would respond to the sources-sought notice.
"In terms of overall capacity, bringing another supplier on board can only assist in dealing with reductions in overall lead times and availability of bringing more product to market sooner," he said in an Aug. 11 interview.
"It just came out. There's a lot of information that's out there. So we're digesting the specific requirements that are laid out and trying to assess intersection with our product capabilities," he added. "In terms of where that lies with the Air Force’s current requirements and their vision for competition in that space at this point, I'm not ready to be able to determine. We're assessing that solicitation for where we feel we might be able to compete."
Lockheed — which plans to begin producing its dual-mode-plus bomb as early as 2017 — has yet to land its first customer, but is targeting US Air Force, Navy and international customers including Canada, Australia and NATO countries, Serra said. The bombs will be manufactured at the company’s Archbald, Pa., facility, which recently quadrupled its production capacity for the Paveway II bomb made there.
"At least a quarter of that capability would scale into dual-mode-plus," said Serra, who would not confirm whether that meant Lockheed would be able to meet the meet the 36,500 units-per-year rate specified in the sources-sought notice.
Earlier this month, the Navy successfully employed 500-pound versions of the weapon to engage fixed targets during two F/A-18E/F Super Hornet test flights at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in China Lake, Calif. The company plans to conduct additional flight tests with the F/A-18 early this fall against stationary targets, he said. After that, sometime around October or November, Lockheed will evaluate whether the bomb can hit a moving target after being dropped from an F-16 from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
Boeing, for its part, is poised to boost its own production to meet the 36,500 units-per-year rate, said spokeswoman Katie Kelly. JDAM production at the company’s St. Charles, Mo., facility increased by 80 percent in July 2015 and again in 2016 after Boeing introduced a second shift. It currently manufactures more than 100 guidance kits per day after several years of growth.
"Moving forward, Boeing and our suppliers have a plan in place to exceed 36,500 JDAM guidance kits per year, and can make adjustments as needed to meet quantity, timeline and capability needs," Kelly said. "Timing for rate increases depends on acquisition planning and timing of contract placement."