Navy Nuclear Chief Concerned About Rocket Motor Industry
The director of the Navy’s strategic systems programs is worried about the state of the solid rocket motor industry, a critical supplier of technology for the Trident D 5 submarine-launched ballistic missile.
The industry has downsized to two major players — Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne — Vice Adm. Terry Benedict said June 2 at an Air Force Association breakfast in Washington, D.C.
“Right now the solid rocket motor industry is sort of in what I would call a trough, a very low volume, and that puts tremendous pressure on the … industrial partners as well as the subtiers that are supplying them constituents,” he said.
The end of NASA’s space shuttle program significantly reduced demand for the motors on the U.S. government side. Today, the Navy’s strategic systems programs office is the only buyer of new production at the strategic level, Benedict said.
The potential loss of suppliers of critical subcomponents is troublesome, he said.
“We’re watching that very, very carefully. It doesn’t take but one or two industrial partners to have technical, cost [issues], or just decide to get out of the business or switch over to some other business; and as a nation … we would be impacted,” he added.
With the industry downsizing, companies have had to take “extreme measures” to consolidate manufacturing operations, he said. Navy SSP has been working closely with Orbital ATK and Lockheed Martin to implement improvement projects to reduce overhead costs, he noted.
“However, the health of the subtier suppliers is still a major challenge that we face,” Benedict said.
The situation could improve when the Air Force’s ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) program moves into production, or NASA starts a new program that requires the organization to buy more solid rocket motors, he said.
However, the Navy has unique needs, he noted.
GBSD and NASA programs are expected to use an ammonium perchlorate-based propellant for their rockets. But Navy SSP uses a propellant that is nitroglycerine-based. Meanwhile, the service needs to acquire 12 Trident rocket motor sets per year from a safety and production line standpoint, he said.
“Within a smaller solid rocket motor industry, I have even a smaller piece of that industrial pie. And so I’m very concerned as I watch the entire industry constrict,” he said.
Benedict said he would continue to work with industry, Defense Department leadership, the Air Force, NASA and Congress “to do everything we can to ensure that this vital national security industry asset is preserved.”