The Pentagon continues to assess the costs and benefits of directing the two contractors building the forthcoming Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) to partner with the two remaining rocket builders in the country, the Air Force’s military acquisition chief said March 28.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Thursday on Capitol Hill, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said the Air Force remains in ongoing dialogues with the Departments of Defense and Energy over whether to push GBSD contractors Boeing [BA] and Northrop Grumman [NOC] to use both U.S. suppliers of solid rocket motors (SRMs) – Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, previously Orbital ATK – for the program development and production.

Air Force Global Stroke Command airmen from the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base test launched an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

The question came from subcommittee member Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who asked Bunch: “Would there be a benefit or programmatic challenge of doing that?”

The departments are weighing the potential impact to the program’s cost, schedule and performance, and evaluating any technical risks that could emerge from the Air Force pushing for two rocket producers, Bunch said.

“We are also weighing that against the risk to the industrial base,” he added. A 2017 Pentagon Annual Industrial Capability report to Congress laid out concerns over whether Aerojet Rocketdyne would be able to sustain itself in the future as its current orders begin to be phased out.

“Maintaining a healthy and competitive SRM industrial base is also of concern to
the Department,” the report said. “In the very near future all the large SRMs for strategic missiles and space launch will be produced by OATK.” Northrop Grumman acquired Orbital ATK in June 2018 and created Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.

Aerojet’s production lines are planned to be reduced as United Launch Alliance (ULA) — a joint launch venture between Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing — selected Orbital to replace its Aerojet-made boosters on the Atlas line of rockets and future launch vehicles, the report noted. “This potentially leaves the United States with a single large SRM supplier, which can lead to cost increases due to lack of competition, decreases in internal research and development efforts, and risk of security of supply if a catastrophic accident should occur.”

Once a determination on the risks has been made at the acquisition level, Bunch will have to discuss those findings with U.S. Strategic Command Commander Air Force Gen. John Hyten, as the requirements partners for GBSD, he added.

“We have to go… explain what those risks are, both from a performance and a schedule and a cost, and how that plays out on a timeline, so that we can determine if we can meet his requirements,” Bunch said.

Bishop asked that the findings of that discussion be shared with the committee once they are available.

The Pentagon expects to procure over 600 new missiles to replace the aging Boeing-made Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile under the GBSD program, with plans to begin fielding in the mid-2020s. Boeing and Northrop Grumman are both completing mature design reviews for the program.