Air Force’s New ICBM Plans Could Damage Defense Industrial Base

Air Force’s New ICBM Plans Could Damage Defense Industrial Base
U.S. Air Force photo SrA Ian Dudley
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Which of these things is not like the others? North Korea has twice tested this year a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Pyongyang also is believed to have acquired advanced solid rocket motor technology from foreign sources that would significantly improve the performance of its long-range missiles. China recently displayed a new road-mobile, solid-fuel ICBM capable of carrying ten or more nuclear warheads. Russia has some twenty programs underway to modernize its nuclear delivery capabilities. It is currently deploying both the new RS-24 Yars (SS-27 Mod 2) mobile, multi-warhead ICBM and the RS-28 Sarmat (SS-30) heavy ICBM that can carry up to 10 multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV) warheads plus advanced missile defense countermeasures. Iran is testing ballistic missiles of various ranges and could probably deploy an ICBM any time it wants. This week the U.S. Air Force awarded contracts to Boeing and Northrop Grumman to begin developing a replacement for the 1960s-vintage Minuteman ICBM. The first of the new missiles called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), won’t be deployed for another decade and then only if there are no major technical glitches or budgetary hiccups.

The U.S. is not currently producing and deploying any new strategic nuclear delivery systems. After years of delays, the Air Force in 2015 awarded a contract for a new strategic bomber to Northrop Grumman. The first new bomber will be available in the mid-to-late 2020s. The Navy is moving forward on the Columbia ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) as the replacement for the aging Ohio-class SSBNs. The current plan is to build 12 Columbia-class SSBNs with the first one to begin construction in 2021 and enter service in 2031. The reality is that for the next two decades at least, the U.S. will have to rely on an aging, even obsolescing strategic nuclear force posture to deter a growing number of hostile nations with modern and growing nuclear arsenals of their own.

The industrial base that supports U.S. strategic forces and will build the next generation of weapons and platforms is in an equally parlous state. A number of companies that once were part of this critical national capability have merged or left the business. Many critical components for the next generation of U.S. ICBMs, bombers and SSBNs are now available from a single source of supply. The public and private infrastructure that supports the maintenance and modernization of the nation’s nuclear weapons has also decayed over time and is in desperate need of recapitalization and modernization.

The Air Force’s acquisition strategy for the GBSD could do further harm to this nation’s critical nuclear forces industrial base. Once there were five companies capable of producing solid rocket motors, one of the most important subsystems for any long-range ballistic missile. Today there are only two: Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK. The approach being taken by the Air Force could result in only one producer in a few years.

Simply stated, the Air Force’s management approach for the GBSD program continues a long-standing practice of ignoring the long-term viability of the defense industrial base. Aerojet/Rocketdyne is on the edge of exiting the large solid rocket motor business. Currently, it produces only one large solid rocket motor, the strap-on boosters for the Atlas rocket. The company which builds and launches the Atlas, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), has informed Aerojet/Rocketdyne that as of 2019 this contract will be awarded to Orbital/ATK. The Air Force knew that the loss of this contract would force Aerojet/Rocketdyne to close a major rocket production facility and fire a large number of skilled workers. The excuse Air Force leaders gave for allowing ULA to make a decision that could harm the solid rocket motor industrial base was that they were merely buying launch services and the decision in question was solely the purview of ULA.

Boeing and Northrop Grumman’s current R&D contracts for the GBSD do not require them to employ both solid rocket makers. Both prime contractors have indicated their intention to maintain Aerojet/Rocketdyne and Orbital/ATK as subcontractors for the current phase of development. However, neither is required to do so by the Air Force on this or subsequent phases of the program. Orbital/ATK currently produces all three motors for the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile. With both the Atlas and Trident contracts, if Orbital/ATK should win all the GBSD work Aerojet/Rocketdyne would then be out of this business, probably for good. Were this to happen, the Air Force is likely to hide behind the fig leaf excuse that this was the decision of the prime(s).

The loss of one of the only two American solid rocket motor companies would mean the closing of facilities and the loss of additional high tech jobs. But equally important, it would create potentially serious risks for U.S. national security. The reduction from two to one solid rocket motor producers would create the unacceptable risk of a technical failure of a motor’s design. Even more serious, a production failure would threaten the viability of two legs of the nuclear triad. Absent a second producer, the nation would have no recourse in such a situation. Nor would it have any options if a collapse of the current strategic arms control regime created a requirement for a rapid expansion of the strategic forces posture. Finally, a single producer creates the potential for monopoly pricing while simultaneously reducing the company’s incentive to continue innovating.

It is past time for the Air Force and the Pentagon to stop avoiding the necessity of ensuring the viability of critical portions of the U.S. defense industrial base. The most important part of that industrial base is the set of companies that support U.S nuclear forces. Maintaining two production houses for this vital component of both the land and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missile and their solid rocket motors should be a national priority.


Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.

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