GBSD May Keep Competition Alive in Solid-Rocket Motor Industry

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test on May 3, 2017, at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. William Collette.

The Air Force is weighing the pros and cons of using both major solid-rocket motor providers—Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK—in the later stages of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program, after the Defense Department voiced concerns about the state of that industrial base.

“We are in those discussions right now,” Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s military deputy for acquisition, told Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) at a House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing Thursday. “We’re weighing out the cost, and the schedule, and the performance, [and] technical risks associated to the programs if it were to … use each of the solid rocket motor producers.”

Industrial base risks are also in play. Once the cost-benefit analysis is done, Bunch said, the acquisition branch will explain the performance, schedule, and cost risks to US Strategic Command and decide what approach best meets its needs.

Solid-rocket motors create hot gases to ignite a mix of fuel and oxidizer, pushing the rocket into the air as the gases combust.

The future of American-built solid-rocket motors is closely intertwined with the GBSD effort, which has provided motor firms badly needed design work over the past several years. Last year, the Pentagon argued losing design and production skills “could result in costly delays, unanticipated expense, and a significant impact to many current and future missile programs.”

Boeing and Northrop Grumman—the two prime contractors competing to produce the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile—are both working with Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK, which Northrop acquired last year.

“The Air Force did not allow any of the primes to enter into an exclusive agreement with either SRM provider during [the technology-maturation and risk-reduction phase] in order to help sustain the health of the SRM industrial base,” the Defense Department reported last spring.

Allowing the company that wins the sole development and production contract next year to keep both motor builders on as partners would help preserve competition and could keep Aerojet Rocketdyne’s large SRM sector afloat.

Aerojet “has chosen to close their Sacramento large SRM production facility,” DOD noted. “While they have plans to reconstitute this capability at their Camden facility, they may not do so if they are not part of the winning team for GBSD, producing at least one SRM stage. This potentially leaves the United States with a single large SRM supplier.”

Despite incremental investments from the GBSD program, DOD worries that strategic missiles and space launches will be powered by Orbital ATK alone “in the very near future.”

Neither company immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday.