A Lockheed Martin Precision Strike Missile is fired during a May test.

A Lockheed Martin Precision Strike Missile is fired during a May test. Lockheed Martin

Defense Firms Pitch Arms, Gear to an Army Looking for Relevance in the Pacific

On Wednesday, Lockheed Martin will attempt to fire a new weapon nearly 500 kilometers.

Lockheed Martin will attempt to fire its new Precision Strike Missile 499 kilometers, roughly as far as Washington, D.C., is to Cleveland, in a test of a weapon Army leaders deem essential to countering China.

If successful, the PrSM—pronounced “prism”—will travel about 200 kilometers farther than the Army’s current generation of rocket artillery. Another PrSM flew more than 400 kilometers in a May flight test.

“I can't tell you how excited we are to demonstrate PrSM’s capability in this very extended range mission,” said Paula Hartley, vice president of tactical missiles for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

The Army wants PrSM in the hands of soldiers by 2023. Lockheed expects the Army to order at least 2,400 of them. During Wednesday’s test flight, the Army is to fire the PrSM missile from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. It will head out over the Pacific Ocean, attempting to fly the 499 kilometers, and maybe further.

Some 2,800 miles from Vandenburg, PrSM was among the dozens of new weapons and pieces of equipment being pitched in a Washington convention center as helpful in countering China. It’s only 41 days since the last U.S. soldiers left Afghanistan, but walking around the exhibit hall at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, it’s abundantly evident the Army and hundreds of its arms makers have already put two decades of counterinsurgency behind them and are largely preparing for a completely different type of conflict. Gone are the robots designed to disable  roadside bombs; here instead are long-range missiles, fast-flying hypersonic weapons, robotic tanks, and next-generation aircraft.

Companies have also looked for ways to repurpose weapons that were mainstays of the two-decade wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. General Atomics’ Predator and Reaper drones could spend hours over the battlefield, but its role has been questioned if the U.S. goes to war with a peer that has long-range missiles and high-performance combat aircraft.

At a tradeshow booth in the middle of the vast basement exhibit hall, the company showed off technology that could enable the Gray Eagle, the Army version of the Predator, strike targets on remote Pacific islands or even sink enemy warships. A video at the General Atomics exhibit played out several scenarios where the drones could prove useful.

Unlike the Gray Eagles that flew over Afghanistan, usually armed with missiles and high-resolution cameras to track enemy movements on the ground below, these aircraft would feature a powerful new radar and a more diverse payload, including smaller drones known as air-launched effects. The small drones—which could be used for jamming an enemy’s weapons or capturing video—would ride under the Gray Eagle’s wing.

The Gray Eagles working in tandem with the smaller drones could then relay targeting coordinates to long-range missiles, fighter jets or other weapons.

Another aspect to the Pentagon’s counter-China (and also -Russia) effort is selling weapons to allies. The U.S. has offered some allies deferred payment plans in the past, but 100 percent of the costs still have to be paid in the first year, said Heidi Grant, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the arm of the Pentagon that oversees foreign arms sales.

Now the Pentagon and State Department are “looking at an opportunity of how we can spread the payments out, a loan-type situation, beyond after the delivery of the piece of equipment,” Grant said during a Tuesday panel discussion.

“Some of our competitors give 20-year loans out there, and there's something that we don't have the capability [and] capacity to do with military equipment right now,” she said. “That's one of the things that I would say unfinished business that we have and it's something that we're working with in our agency to get after some sort of better loan or financing process.”

When evaluating foreign sales, U.S. officials are trying to balance policy, security protection, and technology transfer, Grant said. The U.S. didn’t permit drone sales to many allies over the last decade, leading them to buy from China.

“I can tell you 10 years ago, looking at strategic competition was not a focus,” Grant said. “It was about building partner capability [and] capacity to get after global challenges. But now, it's a new lens. We have to look at this and say, if we're not there, our strategic competition is going to fill the void. And is that riskier than transferring our high-end technologies?”

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