The Air Force plans to continue building its next nuclear cruise missile, the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), with Raytheon [RTN] as the sole-source contractor according to an April 17 release, years ahead of an expected down-select.

Both Raytheon and Lockheed Martin [LMT] have been developing LRSO designs under Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction (TMRR) phase contracts, awarded in 2017. Per Friday’s release on the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center’s website, the service decided to focus on Raytheon’s design after completing preliminary design reviews.

“Our competitive TMRR phase … enabled us to select a high-confidence design at this point in the acquisition process,” said Maj. Gen. Shaun Morris, Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center commander and program executive officer for strategic systems.

The LRSO program, located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, is exploring redirecting funding to “critical areas” and possibly moving activities that were previously scheduled for the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase into the TMRR phase, such as flight tests.

“I am confident in the program office’s ability to execute the next phase’s contract negotiations in a single-source environment and maintain schedule and affordability,” Morris said.  “We are committed to acquiring an affordable LRSO weapon system and we have exceptional cost and design insight into both contractors’ strategies, due to our progress with the acquisition reviews and the cost-capability trades.”

Raytheon noted in a Monday press release that contract negotiations for the EMD phase, “with a strong focus on schedule realism, affordability, and cost-capability trades,” will start in fiscal year 2021. The contract award is anticipated in fiscal year 2022.

Per the Air Force’s fiscal year 2021 budget justification documents, a down-select was not expected until mid-2022. However, the service emphasized in its release that the “early off-ramp” of Lockheed Martin from the program was in line with the existing LRSO acquisition strategy.

“Lockheed Martin has been an excellent contractor and partner throughout the TMRR effort and this pivot to Raytheon does not represent a lack of effort or commitment on their part,” the service said.

Elizabeth Thorn, LRSO program manager at the Nuclear Weapons Center, said the announcement was not a down-select “per se.”

“Instead, we are reframing our relationship with Lockheed Martin to focus on specific technology maturation we believe either has future applicability for the final LRSO design or will reduce overall program risk,” she said. The Air Force has not clarified what Lockheed Martin’s role will be moving forward as of Defense Daily’s deadline Monday.

The Air Force also noted that the decision to “off-ramp” Lockheed Martin in the TMRR phase is different from what transpired with the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, when Boeing [BA] announced last summer it would not bid on the EMD contract, leaving Northrop Grumman [NOC] as the only viable candidate.

The LRSO is intended to replace the Boeing [BA]-built AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which will be sustained through the 2030s. The service intends to procure between 1,000 and 1,1100 missiles at a cost of around $10.8 billion, according to a 2020 report by the Congressional Research Service. Congress appropriated over $712 million in research-and-development funds in the fiscal year 2020 defense budget act for the program; the Defense Department’s FY ’21 budget request earmarked $474.4 million for LRSO.

Roman Schweitzer, of the Cowen Washington Research Group, said in a Monday note to investors that the Air Force is rebalancing and reprioritizing many of its assets while pivoting toward high-end weapons to meet the demands of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. He notes that the service plans to procure more of Lockheed Martin’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles-Extended range (JASSM-ER) missiles, and recently opted to focus on one out of two hypersonic air-launched missile R&D programs, both with Lockheed Martin.

“Singling up on LRSO could have been an industrial base decision or a way to reduce cost and speed up development,” he said. Total development cost for the program is estimated at $4.5 billion, he added.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Boeing built the AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile.