It was a green light for Boeing. But it was a yellow caution sign for Russia. The Air Force go-ahead this week to build 3,400 air-launched cruise missiles was the first major US strategic move since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The arsenal of the terrain-hugging missiles will be the only "really new" strategic weapon in "many, many years," says Air Force Secretary Hans Mark.
It will "have a very significant" effect on the US-Soviet strategic balance in "an area where our superiority in guidance systems puts us far ahead," Dr. Mark adds.
Boeing's victory in a three-year competition for the missile contract with General Dynamics hinged on the inertial guidance system. The superior performance of the McDonnell Douglas Astronautics TERCOM system in the Boeing missile over that in the General Dynamics rival made the difference, Dr. Mark indicates.
Contracts for full development and production of 3,400 missiles will eventually be worth at least $4 billion to Boeing and its sub- contractors and associates. Possibly half of that will go directly to Boeing, whose home is Seattle.
The 20-foot-long Boeing missile looks like a very small pilotless airplane. A nuclear warhead and the guidance system share the nose. A jet turbofan engine , manufactured by the Williams Research Corporation of Walled Lake, Mich., drives the swept-wing craft from the rear.
Contemporary cruise missiles are direct descendants of the German flying "buzz bombs" with which Hitler tried to terrorize England into submission in World War II. The Soviet Union has developed some large ones, believed to have clumsier and much less accurate guidance systems than the Boeing, or the General Dynamics Tomahawk under development for ground- and sea-launching by the US Air Force and Navy.
Boeing's US Air Force B-52G heavy bombers will be retrofitted with 20 cruise missiles apiece. The bomber drops the missile at a range of 1,500 miles or more from target. The missile's wings then open, its own engine starts, and it drops to its 200-to-600-foot course to target, hugging terrain contours to help elude radar.
American arms-control experts have noted great Soviet concern over US cruise missiles. It applies both to the strategic ALCM and shorter-range (350 miles) missiles. Under the protocol of the still-unratified SALT II treaty, the short-range version may not be deployed until the end of 1981.
The Russians, these experts say, fear being hit by a swarm of 1,000 or more ALCMs at once in an all-out war. Adequate detection and countermeasures could cost them $10 billion or more, Pentagon chief scientist William Perry has estimated. Nothing in SALT II bans developing or deploying ALCMs.
Besides Williams Research Corporation, about 30 firms around the US, from New England to California, will share in the ALCM program. General Dynamics may get another crack at a sizable share of cruise production if the Air Force decides on a new competition next year for manufacture of more of the missiles.
B-52B bombers of the Strategic Air Command will first carry 12 cruise missiles each in September 1981, if schedules are met. The first operational ALCM-equipped squadron is to be ready in December 1982, at Griffith Air Force Base, N.Y.