Alliant Techsystems and NASA technicians ready a prototype Ares 1 first-stage solid-rocket motor for a test firing. Credit: ATK photo

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department is weighing ideas for sustaining what it says is an overcapitalized solid-rocket motor (SRM) industrial base that include harmonizing Air Force and Navy research and development efforts, accelerating work on next-generation missile technology and purchasing space launch vehicles at more predictable rates, according to an interim report recently sent to Congress.

Ultimately, however, the nation’s manufacturing infrastructure for large SRMs, consisting of eight major production and test facilities owned by two companies, needs to shrink, the report said.

“The defense industry developed a significant technical and production capacity in the large-SRM industrial base over the last 50 years meeting both the Department’s strategic needs as well as its space launch needs,” states a redacted version of the report, “SRM Industrial Base Interim Sustainment Plan to Congress,” delivered to lawmakers in June.

“The Department cannot sustain the significant overcapacity that has developed in the industrial base. Sustaining overcapacity is not cost-effective for the Department or the American taxpayers, nor is it a realistic or acceptable business model for the large-SRM prime contractors,” said the document, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.

In 1990 there were five companies building large SRMs at 11 facilities. The industry now consists of two primary providers: Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet and Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems.

Over the past 20 years the annual requirement for SRM propellant has dropped from 13.5 million kilograms to 4.5 million kilograms, and is expected to sink to about half that in the years ahead, according to the interim report, which was called for in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010.

NASA’s space shuttle program in recent years has been the primary customer, accounting for as much as 70 percent of demand, according to the report. NASA plans to retire the orbiter fleet next year and abandon a replacement effort dubbed Constellation that would rely heavily on SRMs like those used today on the shuttle.

Congress has proposed separate pieces of legislation that would preserve at least some elements of the Constellation program and direct NASA to develop a heavy-lift rocket that takes advantage of work done to date on Constellation’s SRM-based Ares rockets. But the report suggests there is too much SRM production capacity under any circumstances.

“With the Administration’s plan to cancel the Constellation program, it is conceivable that NASA may no longer need SRMs for the foreseeable future, leaving the Department of Defense as the primary customer to this industry, which is, even with NASA programs, significantly over capitalized,” the report states.

The report was prepared by a Pentagon-led interagency task force charged with identifying critical technical and manufacturing capabilities and with determining whether current or projected demand would be sufficient to protect the base without some sort of subsidization. The group also evaluated alternative business models for the industry.

Options developed by the task force include:

  • Require the Air Force and Navy to start a joint research and development program on technologies for future strategic missiles system designs and an eye toward adopting common manufacturing practices, tooling and raw materials.
  • Study follow-on land- and sea-based strategic deterrents. Under current law, the Air Force is required to sustain its existing Minuteman 3 strategic system through 2030.
  • Modify the Minuteman 3 warm-line program — under which current motors continue to be manufactured at very low rates — to include a technology maturation effort geared toward a replacement motor, which would be required in the early 2020 timeframe as current motors begin to wear out. A more focused motor upgrade plan could be useful if an upcoming Air Force assessment of Minuteman motor longevity — slated for 2015 — indicates they will not meet their expected service life.
  • Establish an accelerated buyout plan for the Navy’s Trident 2 D5 missile motors to hedge against potential cost increases on SRMs, and to provide time for the industrial base to adjust to reduce its manufacturing capacity.
  • Stabilize demand by projecting future space launch requirements and making consistent annual buys of space launch vehicles. Today, the Air Force buys launch vehicles only after a specific mission is identified.

The report said the Pentagon needs to become more involved in managing the SRM industrial sector and bridge divides between services and programs if it is to maintain strategic deterrence capabilities.

“In the past, these assessments have occurred in Service and programmatic stovepipes and largely did not impact the base due to both excess of capacity and the fact that NASA was the largest single customer,” the document states.

Many challenges lie ahead, the report said, including a lack of clarity as to NASA’s future requirements for SRMs and the Pentagon’s own uncertainty regarding its next-generation land-and sea-based strategic systems. The Pentagon needs to adopt an investment strategy that will sustain the industrial base while motivating its suppliers “to make competent business decisions to rationalize operations,” the report says.

“Once the Department is able to define its future requirements, it can then identify the necessary resources within the Department to direct the industry to ‘right-size’ the large-SRM base, ensuring the continued ability to design, develop and produce needed systems,” the report states, adding that at least one of the two prime industrial suppliers has been slow to provide detailed financial and industry information needed to complete the analysis.

Meanwhile, the department awaits final requirements estimates through 2030 from the military services to determine total national security demand for SRMs. The task force will then evaluate alternative business models, including options for open competition, joint ventures or even government-owned and contractor-operated facilities.

Alliant TechSystems spokesman George Torres said July 28 the company supports the Pentagon’s ongoing review, but that it would be inappropriate to comment on an interim report.

Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet vice president of space launch systems, said her company appreciates the opportunity to participate in the review and that Aerojet will continue to support it.

“Fundamentally, Aerojet’s view is that the government should decide its requirements and the base should flex to meet those,” Van Kleeck said July 28. “Things like right-sizing are in order because we need to make sure we have a sustainable, innovative, competitive SRM industrial base that meets the nation’s requirements for the future.”

The department plans to deliver the final SRM industrial base sustainment plan to Congress by the end of September.