The U.S. Navy has selected U.S. space and defense contractor Orbital
Sciences to supply a new Supersonic Sea-Skimming Target missile, or
SSST, passing over a Russian-built missile purchased by Boeing.
Orbital’s business development senior manager Michael J. Bender
credits the Navy victory, in part, to the company’s management strategy
for an “all-American team.”
“We teamed with Atlantic Research and Raytheon, creating an
all-American team to eliminate any geopolitical risk and avoid
dependency on foreign-based contractors,” emphasized Bender in an
interview from Orbital’s facility in Arizona.
The new Orbital target missile is intended to simulate the
Orbital Sciences beat a combined team of U.S. defense contractor
Boeing and Russian missile maker Zvezda, which had proposed an
extended-range version of the MA-31 target drone, a variant of the
Zvezda Kh-31 anti-radar missile. Boeing currently provides the MA-31 to
the U.S. Navy under a multi-year contract with the Russian defense
Orbital Sciences is slated to receive $34 million to develop and
build six of the new target missiles for testing. The contract could
grow to $110 million with production and support options.
“We did not do a lot of marketing outside of the Navy procurement
channels,” noted Bender, stressing that Orbital, Atlantic Research and
Raytheon engineers working on a low-risk, high-performance SSST concept
played a significant role in the contract victory.
“This is very good news for Orbital and for the Navy,” said Bender.
“We have been pursuing this contract for two years. We followed the
same design approach we use in our tactical ballistic missile simulator,
low-risk, low-cost designs to take advantage of existing inventories and
Boeing and Russian missile maker Zvezda proposed an
Bender added, “We plan to use retired standard missile boosters to
boost the target to ramjet take-over speed. The Atlantic Research
variable-flow ducted ramjet utilizes advanced solid fuel technology.
The SSST ramjet is a robust design based on a straightforward four-inlet
configuration. The [Atlantic Research] ramjet engine and inlet design
combination lowers both the risks and costs associated with high-speed
The new Orbital target missile is intended to simulate what is seen
as the number one threat to U.S. warships: the Russian-made Raduga 3M82
Moskit supersonic cruise missile. Russia recently supplied the Moskit
missile on the first of two warships sold to the Chinese navy.
According to the U.S. Naval Institute, each 8,480-ton Russian navy
project 956A Sovremenny destroyer built for China is armed with eight
Moskit supersonic sea-skimming missiles.
In July, the General Accounting Office issued a report titled
“Comprehensive Strategy Needed to Improve Ship Cruise Missile Defense.”
The General Accounting Office concluded that U.S. Navy warships are
vulnerable against the new supersonic class of cruise missiles.
“Although the Navy has made some progress in improving surface ship
self-defense capabilities, most ships continue to have only limited
capabilities against cruise-missile threats,” states the General
Accounting Office report. “A Navy assessment of current surface ship
self-defense capabilities conducted in 1998 concluded that only the 12
Whidbey Island and Harpers Ferry-class amphibious ships have or will be
equipped with defensive systems that can provide measurable improvement
against near- and mid-term cruise-missile threats.
“Current anti-ship cruise missiles are faster, stealthier, and can
fly at lower altitudes than the missiles that hit the U.S.S. Stark in
1987, killing 37 sailors,” states the report. “The next generation of
anti-ship cruise missiles — most of which are now expected to be
fielded by 2007 — will be equipped with advanced target seekers and
stealthy design. These features will make them even more difficult to
detect and defeat.”
The General Accounting Office concluded that “none of the
improvements the Navy plans to make in the future would provide any ship
class a high level of self-defense capability against far-term threats.”
In 1999, WorldNetDaily reported that a
Clinton administration deal
with Moscow had left the U.S. Navy without a means to simulate the supersonic anti-ship missile threat. In September 1999, the SSST project ended eight years of study without a selection, leaving the Navy without a means to test its multi-billion dollar AEGIS missile air-defense system.
The move not to issue a contract in 1999 was considered a victory for the Russian Zvezda-Strela State Scientific Industrial Center, maker of the MA-31 supersonic target missile. An Aug. 31, 1999, letter to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., issued by Navy Undersecretary H. Lee Buchanan, claimed that the Navy would only purchase a “limited number” of the Russian-made systems. According to official U.S. Navy statements, the Zvezda MA-31 target drone cannot duplicate the Moskit performance.
Each Zvezda MA-31 missile reportedly cost the U.S. Navy almost a million dollars. Navy officials disputed that figure, however, providing cost information showing that, for a limited purchase of three units, each missile actually cost over $1.3 million dollars. The price falls to $721,000 each if the U.S. Navy elected to purchase 20 MA-31 missiles from Russia.
There also are open allegations of illegal payments made to Russian generals through the Zvezda project. A January 1999 article published in Janes Defense noted that each MA-31 missile included a kickback to the Russian military of over a quarter million dollars. The official response prepared on Dec. 17, 1999, by Navy freedom of information officers George W. Griffith and Cole Cartledge noted that the Zvezda missile project is not being monitored for Russian corruption.
“The prime contractor with McDonnell Douglas, now a wholly owned subsidiary of The Boeing Company, does not include, and is not required to include, any clauses specifically addressing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act,” states the Navy response.
The newly selected air-breathing ramjet design from Orbital Sciences has the growth potential to install a warhead and be fielded as a new supersonic weapon. Supersonic cruise missiles, such as the Russian 3M82 Moskit and Yahont, have so far not appeared in the arsenals of Western armed forces.
|The Russian Yahont is considered to be part of a new class of surface-skimming robot missiles that threaten U.S. warships.|
Instead, U.S. and European programs are concentrating on slower subsonic stealth missiles such as the new U.S.A.F. JASSM. JASSM missiles are reportedly capable of avoiding the newly deployed Russian SA-10C Grumble surface-to-air defense missile. The Air Force JASSM stealthy cruise missile is not slated to begin production until 2002 and costs nearly a million dollars a copy.
“I think the U.S. and Europe know what they are doing, so I am not surprised at all at the different approach,” stated a highly placed source in the Russian defense industry. “These supersonic missiles fly just above the surface of the water, relying on the screen phenomena created between objects flying so low to surface. I don’t think the Yahont or Moskit lack any stealth technologies.”
U.S. Navy officials openly stated that a weapon version of the Orbital target drone is a possible follow-on. Orbital officials, however, are keenly aware that the previous U.S. Navy Supersonic Low-Altitude Target program failed in part because it was diverted into an unsuccessful effort to modify the target into a weapon.
“Our complete focus is on the SSST,” stressed Bender. “Our team is fully committed to move the supersonic target from development to deployment phase. The Navy will finally get their SSST.”