Last month’s revelation that Boeing may not bid to develop the Air Force’s next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile surprised many. If the company’s concerns about how the program is being competed are not resolved, rival Northrop Grumman may be headed for lucrative monopolies on all three legs of the nation’s nuclear “triad.”
The unsettled state of the program, known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), doesn’t just impact the big aerospace integrators who want to be prime contractor. It also affects a highly specialized supply chain of domestic contractors whose ranks have thinned dramatically since the end of the Cold War.
Foremost among these is Aerojet Rocketdyne, a prospective supplier of solid rocket motors for the three-stage missile. Solid rocket motors are used to power strategic missiles because they can remain stable in a high state of readiness for decades. Liquid fuel is more volatile, and thus can only be loaded shortly before launch.
Aerojet is one of only two companies left in America that builds large solid rocket motors. And unlike its main competitor, which was absorbed into Northrop Grumman last year, Aerojet’s 5,000 workers are focused almost entirely on developing and producing rocket engines. As the company’s CEO observes in her opening message on the company’s web-site, “Our propulsion systems, both liquid- and solid-fueled, have been at the heart of virtually every major U.S. space and missile program since the dawn of the space age.”