A guided missile capable of destroying a single target while leaving nearby structures intact has been unveiled at the Navy's Pacific Missile Testing Center at Point Mugu.
The missile is described by Navy officials as key in improving the accuracy of the fleet's air attacks.
An increased need for more precision in conventional warheads prompted the Navy to develop the Standoff Land Attack Missile, designed to hit and transmit target images at a distance of up to 100 miles.
The missile's primary feature is an infrared seeking device and a video display that allows pilots to zero in on targets with "pinpoint accuracy," said Capt. Donald Finch, a program manager for the SLAM.
"We are guaranteeing the accuracy within a matter of feet," Finch said. "The missile itself is silent, it's covert, it doesn't put out any transmissions. The enemy doesn't know it's coming."
The missile comes at a time when threats of budget cutbacks are forcing the Pentagon to consider upgrading the accuracy of conventional weapons, Finch said.
Until the missile was developed, the Navy counted on less reliable weapons and warheads. With the SLAM missile, air strikes can be launched from more than 50 nautical miles away, Finch said.
SLAM's guided missile system can program information about targets before firing. The image of the target is seen on a small monitor mounted inside the plane.
The missile can be launched offshore from Navy fighter jets. Officials said the missile can be used in the first wave of attack to destroy primary targets without violating airspace and with minimal damage to other buildings, reducing the number of civilian deaths.
Navy officials said the missile could also be used to destroy single buildings or industrial complexes with little risk to U.S. forces during battles.
"If there were a political statement that needed to be made, the President does not need to lose an aircraft or an individual. He can just make that statement," said Lt. Bob Fox, a project officer in the test program to develop the SLAM. "It could be used by the fleet as the initial wave of attack to take out primary targets."
McDonnell Douglas has the $80-million contract to build the missile at its missile systems division in St. Louis.
The manufacturer has already delivered 112 SLAM missiles to the Navy, but the weapon may have other buyers. The Air Force and foreign countries that now purchase the Harpoon missile are also interested in acquiring the missile, said Tom Whitney, development and marketing manager of the McDonnell Douglas SLAM program.
Each missile costs from $700,000 to $800,000, but the price is expected to drop to $500,000 when the missile goes into full production, Finch said.
Whitney said the missile will probably be marketed to customers of the Harpoon missile, including NATO allies, Australia, Japan, Korea and several Middle East countries that Navy officials declined to name.
Because SLAM missiles contain components already used in other guided missile systems, development costs were considered low, compared to other missile systems that have to be developed from scratch, Finch said. The missile took less than two years to develop, compared to 10 to 15 years for other weapons, he added.
The 1,385-pound SLAM missile uses components of the Harpoon, a 500-pound, non-nuclear warhead that has been deployed in the Mideast. With SLAM, the Navy said it will be able to hit land-based targets and ships moored close to shore.
But the missile has some limitations, officials admitted. The missile's seeking mechanism can function at night but cannot operate in cloud cover, Fox said.