The Pentagon on Wednesday awarded a $4.5 billion contract to a Northrop Grumman subsidiary to develop a weapon that would destroy enemy missiles shortly after their launch.

The eight-year contract for the defense giant’s space and mission systems subsidiary covers the development and testing of an interceptor to destroy a missile in its boost phase.

The boost phase is the time when the missile’s engines are firing, before it reaches space.

Ronald D. Sugar, Northrop’s chairman, chief executive officer and president, said the work would create nearly 3,000 jobs by 2007.

The Northrop team includes more than 14 subcontractors, including Raytheon Corp. Raytheon is expected to build the actual interceptor or kill vehicle.

The company said significant amounts of work would be performed at these sites: Huntsville, Ala.; Tucson, Ariz.; Chandler, Ariz.; Elkton, Md.; St. Louis, Mo.; Sunnyvale, Calif.; and Naval Base Ventura County, Calif.

Northrop Grumman beat out defense rival Lockheed Martin for the project. The Pentagon had given both companies $10 million to come up with a concept design for the interceptor.

The contract calls for an interceptor designed to be based on land or on a ship or submarine at sea to knock down a missile shortly after launch. Such a defense would have been banned by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which the United States withdrew from last year.

The Pentagon also is developing two systems to knock out enemy missiles in their midcourse phase, when they are traveling through space. The Defense Department hopes to have six prototype interceptor rockets for the land-based system installed in silos in Alaska by the end of next year.

The Bush administration says the United States needs to develop missile defenses to guard against rogue nations such as North Korea which could fire missiles loaded with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads. Critics say the missile defense plan is too costly and relies on unproven technology.

Among the advantages that the Pentagon cites for destroying missiles shortly after launch is the fact that the missile and its deadly payload “may fall back on the country from which it was launched.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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