The US Air Force (USAF) has awarded two separate contracts, totalling $1.8bn, to Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to develop design concepts and technologies for the service’s new long-range standoff (LRSO) weapon.

Each Technical Maturation and Risk Reduction (TMRR) contract will run for a 54-month period and enable the USAF to replace the ageing AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) with modernised weapon capabilities for the nuclear bomber fleet.

USAF secretary Heather Wilson said: "This weapon will modernise the air-based leg of the nuclear triad.

“Deterrence works if our adversaries know that we can hold, at risk, things they value. This weapon will enhance our ability to do so, and we must modernise it cost-effectively.”

First deployed in the early-1980s, the ALCM will continue to face increasingly significant operational challenges against emerging threats and reliability challenges until replaced, the USAF stated.

The LRSO weapon system, which is an important part of the nuclear triad, will ensure the bomber force continues to hold high-value targets at risk in an evolving threat environment, including targets deep within an area-denied environment.

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"The ALCM will continue to face increasingly significant operational challenges against emerging threats and reliability challenges until replaced."

The TMRR phase of the programme focuses on improving technologies, systems, and subsystems for the weapon programme.

Upon completion of the TMRR phase, the programme is expected to enter the engineering, manufacturing and development phase in 2022.

The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center will choose a single contractor for the engineering and manufacturing development, as well as production and deployment phases of the programme.

The airforce is expected to begin fielding LRSO in the late-2020s.

Image: AGM-86 ALCM being loaded on a B-52 Stratofortress. Photo: courtesy of senior airman Kristoffer Kaubisch or senior airman Andrew Crawford.