Boeing calls for government intervention in ICBM program

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Boeing is asking the government to force a teaming arrangement with Northrop Grumman for the GBSD program.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Boeing is asking the Air Force to compel Northrop Grumman to include Boeing it its bid for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program to design the nation’s future intercontinental ballistic missile system.

Northrop Grumman and Boeing were expected to compete head to head to be GBSD prime contractors but Boeing decided in July it would not submit a proposal because of Northrop’s overwhelming advantage as the nation’s largest manufacturer of solid rocket motors.

Immediately after notifying the Air Force it would not bid, Boeing went to Northrop with a proposal to join forces and submit a proposal with Northrop as the prime and Boeing as a principal subcontractor.

Northrop Grumman hasn’t been willing to pursue that, Frank McCall, vice president of Boeing Strategic Deterrence Systems, told SpaceNews on Tuesday at the Air Force Association’s Air Space & Cyber symposium.

“We talked to them immediately after we sent our no-bid letter in July. They considered it for about a month and then told us ‘no thanks,’” McCall said.

Now Boeing is asking the government to force a teaming arrangement, arguing that an “integrated team would give them a better weapon system sooner,” McCall said. “The government really must intervene.”

McCall would not say what, if any, legal action the company could take but said Boeing hopes the Air Force will help resolve the matter before Northrop Grumman submits its final proposal, due December 13.

Boeing’s thinking on why it chose to bow out as prime contractor has not changed, McCall said. “Clearly we chose not to bid in July because of uneven competitive advantages around solid rocket motors,” he said. “From there on, we began to advocate a national integrated team.”

McCall revealed that the Air Force in the final request for proposals did allow for bidders to consider how they could team with the other competitor. The Air Force did not require it but offered it as an option at the discretion of the contractor. McCall said earlier draft RFPs did not include an allowance for a teaming arrangement but by the time the final RFP was issued, the Air Force was aware of Boeing’s concerns and decided to include the teaming option in the final RFP.

Even though it’s clear that Northrop has chosen to move forward with a single source proposal, “We continue to advocate for the integrated team,” said McCall. “The government has a choice between whatever Northrop chooses to propose to them or an integrated team. If they want the latter they have to intervene and make that happen.”

McCall said Boeing has made the case that there is room in the GBSD program for competing designs that both Boeing and Northrop put together during the Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction phase of the program. Both provided design options for the government to choose from, he said. If both companies stay in the program, “the government is in a great position to define the future of GBSD.”

The $63 billion GBSD is a “very diverse weapon system” that will be around for at least 50 years, McCall said. “It has launch systems, ground systems , control systems. It’s highly unlikely that either Boeing or Northrop has the best idea for every piece of that system.” With an integrated team, “you would get more competition in ideas and in the supply chain.”

Northrop Grumman did not respond to questions about Boeing’s demands. The company on Monday announced its subcontractor team for GBSD, which includes Aerojet Rocketdyne, the only other U.S. manufacturer of solid rocket motors.

McCall suggested that Northrop refused to let Boeing on the team for fear that Boeing’s designs are better. “I think there’s a concern about disruption,” he said. The Air Force never communicated with either company what it thought about their designs. “The Northrop team has been in isolation developing their concept. And we’ve been in isolation developing our concept and frankly neither of us got very much feedback from the Air Force,” he said. “So the Northrop folks may be concerned that if they integrate both teams there would be disruption.”

In Boeing’s view it would be a “healthy disruption,” said McCall. “This is a great opportunity to demonstrate disruption in digital engineering. GBSD was identified by the Air Force as the pathfinder for model based systems engineering.”

McCall insisted that Boeing is not going to revisit its decision to not bid on its own. “We decided that in July and we haven’t looked back,” he said. “We are not going to change that decision moving forward.”

The advantage that Northrop has as the largest manufacturing of solid rocket motors is overwhelming, he said. “Rocket motors represent probably 90 percent of the mass of the vehicle. When you see a Minuteman ICBM most of what you see is solid rocket motors.”

In GBSD, more than half the price of the missile is solid rocket motors, and they account for 25 to 30 percent of the total weapon system cost. “An advantage of 30 percent of the total cost of the system, that adds up in a big hurry.”

Boeing could have tried for an exclusive teaming arrangement with Aerojet but the company concluded that Northrop, because of its large customer base and production run had a huge “risk advantage” over Aerojet.

“Northrop is producing large solid rocket motors today for many customers and they have capacity to do this job as well,” said McCall. “The Air Force’s RFP construct is built mostly around technical risk and price. While we were competing the two of them, Aerojet suffered that disadvantage.”