NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Keeping the threat of a bid protest in his back pocket, a Boeing executive said here Tuesday that the Air Force can save time and money building the next-generation of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles if the service scraps a competition in which only Northrop Grumman [NOG] is competing.

“What I am suggesting is the Air Force pull us in a room together and say, you got 30 days to go figure out what is the right integrated baseline for the country to move forward with,” Frank McCall, director of strategic deterrence systems and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program manager for Boeing [BA], told reporters on the sidelines of the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air, Space Cyber conference here. “Starting now. Not starting a year from now after a ‘competition.’”

With his fingers, in the international indication of irony, McCall made air quotes around the word competition, declaring as he did: “air quotes.” 

“Today there’s no competitive pressure on Northrop Grumman,” McCall said. “So the idea that competition is going to give us the best price is not viable in the current state.”

Boeing dropped out of the competition to build GBSD in July. One of only two entities permitted to bid at all, Boeing said Northrop Grumman has an insurmountable advantage under the Air Force’s current request for proposals because the Falls Church, Va.-based company owns its own solid-rocket motor business: the formal Orbital-ATK. 

Treading carefully after Senate Armed Services Chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he wanted no delay on the program to replace aging, Boeing-built Minuteman III ICBMs by 2030, McCall said that a shotgun marriage on the potentially $25 billion GBSD engineering and manufacturing development contract would make the program better, faster and cheaper than what Northrop Grumman and its who’s-who team of defense industry teammates could offer.

Yet McCall would not rule out a bid protest, should the Air Force stand by its current GBSD solicitation and continue its policy of non-interference with industry.

In that game of chicken, pitting the ICBM incumbent against the Air Force, the customer is not blinking.

“[W]e are very open to a variety of proposals. We are open to teaming relationships. We just don’t want to dictate,” William Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said at a media roundtable here on Tuesday. “[O]n the Air Force side, we are still waiting for the proposal period to close to see what proposals we get and then we’ll go from there.”

The Air Force plans to award the GBSD manufacturing contract by September 2020. The service has said it will acquire more than 600 missiles and deploy about 400. The spares would back up the active fleet, and be used for test launches to demonstrate that GBSD work as intended.

McCall spoke to reporters a day after Northrop Grumman publicly rebuffed Boeing’s overture to combine forces. In an announcement Tuesday that sent ripples through the assembled industry and service personnel here, Northrop Grumman announced its GBSD bid would include Boeing arch-rival Lockheed Martin [LMT], plus independent solid rocket motor supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne [ARJD]— a key member of Boeing’s own GBSD design team.

Notably, Northrop Grumman’s GBSD team did not include Boeing.

The GBSD contract means work for decades for at least some of its teammates. Though pressed repeatedly by media here, McCall would not say how much of the future GBSD work Boeing wants. 

“We are not talking about a two-headed monster that the Air Force has to manage and integrate,” McCall said. “We’re talking about a single prime with a principal subcontractor that operate under a single lead.”

Boeing and Northrop Grumman are now in the final year of competitive, three-year, GBSD design contracts awarded by the Air Force in 2017. Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems the former Orbital-ATK — worked on each company’s Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction contract.

Meanwhile, the U.S. ICBM fleet remains one of the biggest issues in the impending conference negotiations between the House and Senate on the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

Democrats who control the House of Representatives, notably House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.), think the Pentagon should at least study the possibility of shrinking the GBSD procurement by extending Minuteman III into the 2050s. 

Inhofe and the GOP majority in the Senate are all in on starting GBSD now. A bi-cameral group of lawmakers were set to begin conference negotiations on the annual defense policy bill later this week, media reported.