Strategy & Policy

Sept. 1, 2019

A Minuteman III transporter/erector loading test at Minot AFB, N.D., in April. USAF must decide how to proceed with its ICBM replacement program with only one bidder. Photo: SrA. Ashley Boster

Aug. 14, 2019—


Boeing won’t bid on the Air Force’s new ICBM replacement, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program, the company announced in July. That leaves the Air Force without a competitor to Northrop Grumman, which now looks to be the sole-source supplier on the potentially $85 billion project.

Boeing’s reason for declining to bid was simple: Northrop owns Orbital ATK, the sole producer of large solid rocket motors in the US. Boeing was planning to use Orbital ATK motors, but said it doesn’t think there’s any way it can underbid Northrop, which can charge a lower price on GBSD because its SRM supplier is essentially in-house. Boeing also said it’s uninterested in being on a forced team with Northrop to develop the program, as some have suggested.

The situation echoed loudly a warning offered by the Pentagon itself only a month earlier; namely that the defense industrial base is in trouble. According to an annual Pentagon report released in June, domestic suppliers of many military-critical items—it specifically called out solid rocket motors, as it has for 20 years—are down to one or none, compelling the Defense Department to either forego competition on some crucial items or depend on overseas suppliers.

Besides Orbital ATK (since renamed Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems), which Northrop won approval to acquire in June 2018, only Aerojet Rocketdyne makes SRMs in the US, and it focuses on the smaller SRMs used in items such as air-to-air missiles.

If nothing changes, USAF will have to select Northrop Grumman as its sole-source GBSD supplier, without the benefit of a competitor to put downward pressure on the price.

Boeing Defense CEO Leanne Caret wrote to Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper on July 23, saying the GBSD program doesn’t offer a “level playing field.” Northrop Grumman, she said, has an “inherent advantage” by virtue of being vertically integrated with Orbital, and that fact means it isn’t even worth Boeing’s effort to “devote the significant resources required to develop” a proposal to answer the Request for Proposals, which the Air Force released July 16. Responses to the RFP are due in December, and USAF expects to award a contract next summer.

Caret said Boeing has been “transparent with the Air Force about its concerns” throughout the procurement process, but the “modest changes” made in the RFP didn’t fix things to the company’s satisfaction. Those changes included extending the RFP response deadline by two months and the option to do a joint proposal with Northrop.

The Air Force won’t comment on the GBSD developments, because, a spokeswoman said, the program is “now in source selection.”

Boeing’s move was not a huge surprise to the industry.

As soon as Northrop acquired Orbital, “The spectre of how this was going to play out in the GBSD competition was kind of the big question in town,” William A. LaPlante, MITRE Corp. senior vice president and general manager, national security programs, told Air Force Magazine in an interview. LaPlante served from 2012-2015 as the Air Force’s acquisition chief, and toward the end of his tenure, oversaw the beginnings of the GBSD’s Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction phase. Under TMRR, Northrop and Boeing got $329 million and $349 million, respectively, to develop GBSD concepts. Roper and former Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson have described this phase of the GBSD program as one of the best-run in the service, offering innumerable digital variations on concepts so USAF can pick the best ones.

As part of the deal to get the Pentagon’s acquiescence in the merger, Northrop agreed that Orbital could continue to supply Boeing with SRMs for the GBSD competition.

Boeing later insisted—and Northrop, at USAF’s urging, agreed—that there be firewalls in place to ensure that Boeing design information didn’t find its way to Northrop’s GBSD capture team. But that still wasn’t enough to convince Boeing that it had a shot at winning. Caret said the final RFP failed to “address the unfair advantage” enjoyed by its competitor. The solid rocket motors, Caret said, are “the essential part” of the GBSD, and Northrop’s reduced overhead gives it an unbeatable pricing edge.

So what is the Air Force to do


“At this point, there are four ways to go,” said LaPlante, who said he has been asked “unofficially” by the Air Force for his perspective.

Option one is “just stay the course,” LaPlante observed. Replacing the Minuteman III is urgent and “time is of the essence” in the view of Air Force Global Strike Command, he said. The Air Force could opt to simply award the contract to Northop “in the interest of time,” because the Minuteman starts to age out in the late 2020s.

“The pressures of getting this program underway are tremendous,” he added, “particularly from the operators.” Even with only one contractor, that doesn’t mean the program will launch any more quickly than it would under the existing RFP. LaPlante said “awarding and definitizing” the contract will take time, although he acknowledged that the current administration has moved to save time by reducing programmatic reviews, among other steps.

There are three other main possibilities, he asserted.

“One is, the government could form some kind of national team—sort of like the (Missile Defense Agency) did in the early 2000s. They could specify, ‘this is the team we want, in the interest of the industrial base.’” The Air Force took a slightly different approach in its RFP, allowing but not requiring Boeing and Northrop to offer a joint proposal alongside a solo bid.

But Boeing addressed that idea in its letter to Roper, saying it’s “not realistic” to expect the two companies to develop “a joint proposal in the five months before proposals are due” after building separate proposals for two years. The idea is “not a workable solution,” Caret said.

Another option would be for USAF to buy the motors itself, and supply them as government-furnished equipment to the GBSD winner, thus allowing the two companies to compete on the basis of the concept, design, and management of the ICBM replacement process, LaPlante noted.

Finally, “a slight variant on that, is to exclude the cost of the rocket motors from the source selection,” LaPlante noted, saying “In other words, make the source selection about everything else” besides the SRMs.

Asked which course he thinks the Air Force will take, LaPlante said it depends on how much the service weighs the time element.

“If time is your priority I could see them continuing to go with the course that they’ve set.” If, on the other hand, “the health of the industrial base is viewed as imperative,” it could be one of the other three, he said.

It’s also possible that the Air Force could widen the field to include Aerojet more broadly, and “the government could say, we will do a competition for the first stages.” But that would “probably take too much time,” given the urgency of the procurement, according to LaPlante.

His own hunch is that while USAF will certainly review its options, it will also look hard at “what the benefit is of delay. I don’t know how quickly you could update the RFP and the acquisition strategy.” Both would have to be adjusted, and while changing the RFP is simply a matter of “editing,” changing the acquisition strategy would be a radical thing, LaPlante noted—affecting cost estimation models for both the government and contractors, and opening up a whole new round of discussions that would likely a incur long delay.

LaPlante mentioned that when the B-21 bomber competition was underway, “we had the luxury” of two years of discussions with the contractors to iron out every question and address every concern, resulting in a source selection that “withstood the most rigorous protest,” he said. With the time pressure on the GBSD, such thoroughness may not be possible, he said.

A senior Air Force official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in early August “there’s still time” for the service to assess the ramifications of Boeing’s announcement. “We may do nothing,” he said, and “Boeing could change its mind and decide to bid even if nothing changes.”


Will Boeing’s opt-out spur Congress and the Pentagon to abandon its decades-long policy of letting the market decide? Will there be more directed buys of critical items to preserve the industrial base and expand the competitive environment

LaPlante said the SRM situation “didn’t have the same ‘call to action, clarion call’” that erupted when the US realized it had to address its dependence on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket motor some years ago. “We need a similar program, in my opinion, for the solids,” LaPlante said. “We need to have multiple options” for solid rockets as the US will when the RD-180 situation is fully addressed.

Although he initially said an SRM initiative would be “a little late,” LaPlante backtracked, saying “maybe not,” noting that while the Navy is putting the old Trident II missile on its new Columbia class of sea-launched ballistic missile submarines, “not too long after, the Columbia class will get a follow-on to the Trident II. That will hopefully motivate a solid rocket motor examination for the US.”

And “it’s not just” the GBSD and the successor to the Navy D-5 missile, LaPlante noted. The ground-based interceptor element of missile defense also relies on solid rocket motors. “All three of those need industrial base policies associated with them,” he asserted. “This could be the wake-up call.”

What should not happen, LaPlante said, is for the industrial base to be a consideration during source selection. It has to be worked in at the beginning. “You do it before then, in the way you set up” the competition, he said.

Although the Air Force should still try to work competition into the GBSD, there shouldn’t be any delay if it can’t, according to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, head of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Writing in Forbes, Deptula said that “absent a mutually satisfactory agreement the Air Force should continue the GBSD program as scheduled.”

The nuclear stakes are too high, Deptula said, to risk delaying the final retirement of the Minuteman III any longer, and proceeding with a single contractor “would be preferable” to extending the GBSD timelines.

There’s precedent for single-bid contracts, he wrote, including the F-35 fighter, Global Positioning Satellite, Army multipurpose vehicle, Navy presidential helicopter, and Air Force Combat Rescue Helicopter, all of which have produced reasonable outcomes.

“Moreover, any major delay would risk increasing the GBSD program’s costs and likely require additional, unplanned investments to sustain Minuteman III,” Deptula said. The dispute over the structure of the GBSD program could also “be used to revive the narrative of die-hard opponents against modernizing” the land-based leg of the nuclear Triad, and Deptula warned against members of Congress using Boeing’s action “to call for another study on the feasibility of extending the Minuteman III.” He noted that “a dozen such studies have all concluded that the GBSD is the only option that will meet the nation’s requirement for a reliable, sustainable and credible ICBM force.”