The Air Force awarded a $1.1-billion contract Tuesday to a team made up of Boeing Co., TRW Inc. and Lockheed Martin Corp. to build a prototype laser-armed warplane designed to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles at long range.
The award will create some jobs for the Southern California aerospace industry, but not as many as would have been expected had the contract been awarded to the losing bidder, Rockwell International Corp. of Seal Beach, which was teamed with Hughes Aircraft Co. of El Segundo.
The warplane is one of the Air Force's top priorities and a prime example of the service's hopes for developing more high-tech weapons to thwart enemy forces in the future.
Although the project will be small at its inception, the technology could eventually become the foundation of a major new line of airborne weaponry.
The initial employment impact in Southern California will be modest, with jobs at TRW's Space and Electronics Group of Redondo Beach, which will build and design a high-power chemical laser for the plane.
A Rockwell victory in the competition would have had much greater economic effect on Southern California because the Rockwell team would have built virtually the entire laser here. Rockwell's team included its Rocketdyne unit in Canoga Park, which was to build the laser, and Hughes Aircraft, which would have built the aiming mechanism.
Under a previous agreement, Rockwell is selling its defense operations to Boeing, including the units involved in the laser program. It is unclear whether Boeing will use any of the Rockwell technology once the transaction is complete.
"This is truly a revolutionary system," said Gen. Ronald Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff. "We believe that the cost and the risk now are manageable."
Boeing's Defense Space Group will be the prime contractor for the effort. Lockheed-Martin Missiles & Space of Sunnyvale, Calif., will build the aiming mechanism.
Boeing and its partners plan to refine their laser system for the Air Force over the next six years. At that point, the Air Force and the Pentagon's senior acquisition board will decide whether to purchase lasers and continue the program.
The airborne laser will be housed in a modified Boeing 747 freighter. The system is planned to be able to allow a flight crew to destroy an enemy missile during the missile's ascent phase, typically the first 30 seconds to two minutes after launch, from a distance of 200 miles.
The system will be designed to operate at an altitude of about 40,000 feet.
The Air Force plans to have a seven-plane fleet of laser-attack jets as early as 2008.
In its development phase, the aircraft is known as the YAL-1A, or Attack Laser Aircraft.
Harry Schulte, the Air Force program executive officer for weapons, said the total production cost will be about $5 billion and that the 20-year life span of the system will be about $11 billion.
Schulte, asked why Boeing was chosen, said, "The strength of the Boeing team was in their laser." He said Boeing had also made "great strides" in terms of integrating communication systems and was "very strong" in the logistics area of support for the system.
Rocketdyne and TRW have long been fierce cross-town rivals in building high-powered chemical lasers.