Questionable “competence” within Air Force procurement ranks helped turn a competition to build a fleet of next-generation nuclear missiles into a one-horse race, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday.
Bids to build and deploy the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), silo-based missiles designed to replace the nuclear-tipped Minuteman III fleet starting in 2030, are due in a matter of weeks, and Northrop Grumman [NOC] will be the only bidder.
Boeing [BA], which built every Minuteman missile the Air Force ever deployed, was Northrop Grumman’s sole competitor for GBSD until July when it publicly and acrimoniously withdrew from the bidding.
“Part of the reason that Boeing withdrew their bid is the Air Force inadvertently sent proprietary information to Northrop that was Boeing’s,” Smith told reporters at a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill. “‘Oh, ooh, sorry did we send that letter to the wrong person?’” Smith asked rhetorically, apparently roleplaying the part of the Air Force. “And now we got a sole-sourced 100 billion contract.”
Smith has dinged the Air Force recently for its handling of proprietary GBSD data. In a late-October speech to the nuclear-disarmament-advocating Ploughshares Group, Smith clucked his tongue at the Air Force over a “documented” mishandling of sensitive Boeing data during the GBSD competition.
Wednesday, however, was the first the House Armed Services chair drew an explicit link between that apparent information fumble and Boeing’s decision to give up on priming GBSD’s $25 billion Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase. The company has a major presence in Washington, where Smith represents the state’s 9th district.
The Air Force plans to award the GBSD EMD contract in August. An Air Force spokesperson confirmed that Smith and Barrett have discussed Air Force acquisitions, however, “Due to source selection, I cannot provide more information on the GBSD program,” the spokesperson added.
Boeing said in a Thursday morning statement: “Boeing has been transparent about our concerns regarding the current GBSD acquisition since April 2018, including Northrop Grumman’s unfair advantage arising from their purchase of Orbital ATK’s solid rocket motor business and their compliance with the FTC Consent Order governing that acquisition.
“This lack of true competition risks a sole-source, cost-plus award for an $85 billion system that will be foundational to America’s nuclear deterrence for decades to come. We remain committed to the mission and to seeking an alternate pathway,” the company continued.
In withdrawing from the competition, Boeing said it could not compete with Northrop Grumman on price because Northrop Grumman owns its own solid-rocket motor business: the former Orbital-ATK. Boeing has lobbied the Air Force, unsuccessfully so far, to scrap the GBSD competition and force Boeing and Northrop Grumman down into a 30-day skunk-works to come up with what the incumbent calls a “national” GBSD team.
Northrop Grumman, which in September unveiled a GBSD team that included Boeing rival Lockheed Martin [LMT], has also spurned the idea of a national team.
Update: This article has been updated with a statement from Boeing.