DoD’s Interim Solid-rocket Motor Study Expected in June

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government will spare no expense to preserve its ability to produce strategic missiles following the anticipated end of a program deemed crucial to the health of some of the companies involved in the production of these systems, a Pentagon official said.

“We will do whatever is necessary to protect our strategic systems, and we are looking at all options,” Brett Lambert, director of industrial policy within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, said May 25. “My goal is to build a business case and smooth out those requirements.”

At issue is the U.S. industrial base for solid-rocket motor production, which faces the loss of its biggest single source of demand, NASA’s space shuttle program, and the prospect of nothing comparable to replace it. The space shuttle, which reaches orbit largely on the strength of two massive solid-rocket motors, is slated for retirement in the coming months, and the White House wants to terminate a program to develop a follow-on astronaut-launching system that was to use similar motors.

The U.S. Defense Department relies on solid-rocket motors for its strategic missiles but has only one such system in production — the D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile. Solid-rocket motors also are used on tactical missiles and missile interceptors, as well as to boost the lift capacity of the Pentagon’s liquid-fueled Atlas 5 and Delta 4 satellite launchers.

Lambert is leading a congressionally mandated study on the solid-rocket motor industrial base. An interim version of the study is expected to be delivered to lawmakers in June, with the final report to come around the end of the year, Lambert said.

ATK Aerospace Systems of Magna, Utah, is the largest solid-rocket motor producer in the United States, with the space shuttle being its biggest program. The shuttle’s impending retirement and the lack of a comparable follow-on program likely would force up the costs of ATK’s other programs, and these costs would be passed along largely to the Defense Department.

The other U.S. producer of solid-rocket motors, GenCorp Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., also would be affected because without the demand from a big program like the space shuttle, the cost of the ammonium perchlorate fuel for solid-rocket motors likely would rise, thus driving up the cost of its programs as well. In the United States there is a single producer of ammonium perchlorate, American Pacific Corp.’s Western Electrochemical Co. of Cedar City, Utah.

Solid-rocket motors are just one niche of a broader space industrial base to which more attention must be paid, Lambert said. Over the last five to 10 years, soaring defense budgets have masked many of the problems that have been brewing in the industry, and a series of actions must be taken to maintain U.S. space capabilities, he said.

“A permissive budget environment, with 45 percent real growth over the last decade, covered up a lot of sins,” Lambert said. “If you had a problem, you threw money at it. As we all know, those days are gone.”

To address these issues, the Pentagon must first re-establish its partnership and trust with industry, Lambert said. Industry needs more insight into the military’s programs, and budgets must be made more stable from year to year, he said.

The Pentagon must also become a more sophisticated buyer and create a more sophisticated approach to industrial policy, Lambert said. Contractor supply chains have become increasingly complex, and the Pentagon must get more insight into these supply chains to figure out how to buy more effectively.

With very few space programs being started now, the issue of retaining parts of the highly skilled work force is important, Lambert said. In certain critical mission areas it may be appropriate to consider moving some of these employees under the wing of a federally funded research and development center, he said.

Another area of concern is export controls, where the United States is seeking broad reforms of policies that have been deemed “Byzantine” by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Changes in the export control regime are coming in the near future, Lambert said.