The Orbital Sciences Launch Systems Group in Chandler has won a $400 million contract for build interceptor missiles for the national missile defense system, the latest in a string of big contracts the company has won for missile defense work.
Orbital is part of a team of defense contractors led by Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co. to build a system of Kinetic Energy Interceptors, called KEIs, that would be capable of knocking down ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads that might be launched against the United States.
The overall contract worth about $4.5 billion was awarded to the industry team by the Missile Defense Agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Defense, following a $10 million, eight-month development effort. Another team led by Lockheed Martin and Boeing also competed for the project. At the height of the program later this decade, Orbital will assign about 300 people to the program. But it is too soon to know if additional jobs will be created at the Chandler plant, Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said. “We may shift some people around, but it will at least keep employment at current levels if not a bit higher,” he said.
The six-year program will start up gradually and will not hit full stride for Orbital until 2005, he said. The overall Kinetic Energy Interceptor system is expected to be deployed in 2010-12.
The Chandler Group will be responsible for building the launch rocket that would intercept the enemy missile in the initial assent stage of its flight toward the United States. Raytheon's Missile Systems business in Tucson will make the warhead that will fit at the tip of the interceptor missile and assemble various other components from Orbital and other subcontractors into a final missile, which will be supplied to Northrop Grumman. Northrop will integrate the interceptors with command and control systems and satellites receivers that detect hostile missile launches to create the final system.
Orbital's Chandler operations are already involved in two other parts of the National Missile Defense program, which is a high priority of the Bush administration. The group is making interceptor missiles under a contract with Boeing for the midcourse portion of the system, which is designed to knock down enemy missiles that reach the middle of their flights toward the United States.
Also Orbital is making target rockets that are used to test the midcourse and terminal phases of the system. The terminal phase will be composed of systems such as the Patriot missile that are designed to stop enemy missiles that get through the first two layers of defense.
As a result of those programs, Orbital has about doubled its Chandler employment in the past years to about 750, Beneski said.
"With the addition of the KEI boost vehicle program, Orbital's interceptor and target launch vehicles are now being used to help develop, test and deploy missile defense systems in each layer of (missile defense) architecture," said David W. Thompson, Orbital's chairman and chief executive.
The kinetic energy portion of the system is important because it attacks enemy missiles at the beginning of their flights when they are most vulnerable. The interceptors could be deployed at sea or on land close to enemy territory and would “kill” the opponent's missiles by kinetic energy - simply hitting them at high speed.
“KEI . . . will serve as a visible, deployable deterrent to those who would threaten us," said Ronald D. Sugar, Northrop Grumman's chairman and chief executive, in a statement. Raytheon spokeswoman Sara Hammond said her company will employ about 1,000 people on the program at its height in about 2007, most in Tucson. Like Orbital, she said it is too soon to know if the company will need new hires or will handle the work with existing staff.
“We have other missile defense programs, and we may bring in people from that,” she said.