By Marina Malenic

As the Pentagon begins shifting the focus of its missile defenses portfolio from long-range to theater threats, industry teams are eagerly awaiting the results of a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) study likely to determine the funding focus for air-launched hit-to-kill (ALHTK) programs.

“If you look at the changing vector of missile defense, MDA is focused on short- and medium-range threats,” Mike Booen, Raytheon’s vice president for directed energy programs, told Defense Daily during an Aug. 18 telephone interview.

“They are focused on affordability, and they want something fielded in the near term,” Booen added. “A lot of countries are rattling their sabre out there, so there is a sense of urgency.”

ALHTK options have captured the attention of the Air Force. Gen. Norton Schwartz, the service’s chief of staff, told MDA Director Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly in a June 2 letter about “growing interest” in such programs among the Air Force brass. In that letter, he requests a joint Air Force-MDA study of ALHTK options, which is now under way. The agency and the service are also studying whether to recommend making ALHTK a program of record, according to a source close to the discussions.

“Based on a recent wargame, the Air Force has recommended several [ALHTK] alternatives to the Missile Defense Agency,” the source told Defense Daily.

For example, Raytheon has developed the two-stage Network-Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE) for legacy and future fighter jets, while Lockheed Martin is proposing an air-launched version of the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 Missile Segment Enhancement for use on the F-15.

Booen said Raytheon could produce NCADEs, based on the company’s Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), to be ready for deployment in four years. According to the proposed fielding plan, Raytheon would be able to provide MDA with 20 NCADE rounds “to preposition wherever they wanted around the world–East Asia, the Middle East, and so on,” Booen added.

He said the company’s goal is to sell the interceptors for $1 million apiece at full-rate production. He called that price a “bargain” compared to other MDA programs.

The effort began with internal funding, and MDA awarded the company a $10 million contract last year. The full development is expected to cost some $500 million, according to Pentagon sources. MDA has included $3.5 million for the program in the administration’s Fiscal Year 2010 Pentagon budget request.

NCADE is designed to intercept ballistic missiles in the boost and ascent phases of flight in both the endoatmosphere or exoatmosphere.

Booen expects the Air Force-MDA study to be completed in the coming weeks, just in time to make recommendations for the Pentagon’s major weapon systems assessment, the Quadrennial Defense Review. The results of that review will affect Pentagon spending plans for the next four years.