U.S. Navy, Air Force To Conduct Joint Research Effort on Solid-rocket Motors

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy and Air Force will launch a solid-rocket motor research and development program, part of an effort to “revive the health” of the U.S. space industry and shore up an eroding skills base, Pentagon officials said.

Meant to assuage concerns raised in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by the administration of President Barack Obama, the new program will focus on “commonality between the military departments, and joint scalable flight demonstrations,” Department of Defense (DoD) officials said in a written statement. Other details are still “in the planning process,” they said.

The Air Force uses solid-fuel rocket motors in its Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the Navy uses them to lift Trident 2 D-5 nuclear missiles. NASA also uses such rockets to lift the space shuttle into orbit.

But none of these “has immediate plans for a new large solid rocket motor design,” the review said. And since the military services will use such missiles “for at least another two decades, the nation will need technically skilled personnel to address the unknown future challenges associated with the aging of these systems,” the review said.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn underlined DoD concerns soon after the report was released.

“DoD needs to retain some capability in this area,” Lynn told an April industry luncheon. He said he hoped that Pentagon and NASA officials, who are talking “about a way ahead” on the motors, can reach a decision this month.

Some nuclear weapons experts wonder what all the fuss is about.

“I just get the sense a lot of this talk is overblown,” said Sharon Squassoni of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The NPR says we’re going to keep the triad [land-based ballistic missiles, submarine-based ballistic missiles and bombers] intact, so it’s not like all the work is going to dry up.”

But other analysts say the warnings are justified because DoD does not buy many such rockets, and NASA will retire the space shuttle.

In their statement, Pentagon officials also shed more light on DoD’s decision this year to shift $5 billion to the Department of Energy (DoE).

“DoD and DoE have negotiated specific terms for this transfer, but broadly, the money will go to support key production infrastructure investments, warhead life extension programs, stockpile surveillance activities, and S&T [science and technology] in support of stockpile certification that the 2010 NPR report concluded are vital for sustainment of the nuclear weapons enterprise,” the officials wrote.

The Obama administration says nuclear development will tilt toward refurbishing or reusing weapons. Some call that a mistake.

The NPR should have committed to “building new nuclear weapons to adapt the nuclear force to the more defensive strategic posture required for today’s and tomorrow’s world,” Baker Spring, an analyst at Washington’s Heritage Foundation, wrote in an April 14 report. “Neither the administration nor Congress should believe that the modernization effort can focus solely on the glaring atrophy of the nuclear weapons infrastructure and arsenal and then consider these problems fixed.”