The U.S. Navy has approved a new easier-to-upgrade version the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System that opens opportunities for small technology companies.

The announcement was made yesterday by the 5,500-person Lockheed Martin Corp. complex in Moorestown, where Aegis has been developed over the last 30 years.

"We have broken computer programs into modular components," said Sue Huelster, technical director on the project. This open architecture in three key areas of the system allows Lockheed Martin to take "best-in-breed components from small business and insert it more rapidly into Aegis," Huelster said.

The new version also uses more off-the-shelf hardware that is compatible with other warship systems.

The approval comes after five years of daily collaboration with several organizations in the Navy. "They were partners in this evolution as opposed to handing us an operational requirement and waiting for us to complete it," said Jim Peluso, a program manager on the project.

Each module was designed for future growth in technology and to allow leveraging the complex Aegis system to serve other warship systems, Peluso said.

The cruiser Bunker Hill will get the first upgrade as part of a larger ship-modernization project to begin in February in San Diego. The system will be refined in sea trials late next year and in extensive testing in 2009 before it is deployed for use in combat.

Aegis is aboard 85 ships of the U.S. and allied navies, and it is planned for 20 more ships.