U.S. Solid Rocket Motor Industry Capable But Needs Investment: Report

Suppliers and contractors in the United States are capable of meeting the nation’s needs for solid rocket motors (SRM) but challenges remain, including the need for increased public and private investment and waning research, development and production demand, according to a new report from the Pentagon’s office that deals with industrial base issues.

"The SRM industrial base, both prime and subtier suppliers, is capable of meeting most technological and production requirement" but "the lack of meaningful production orders and limited development efforts for the next decade is not conducive to the long term well-being of the industry," says the report, SRM Industrial Capabilities Report. The report was prepared by the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy per a request from Congress due to recent decisions to extend the life of the Minuteman III and Trident II D-5 strategic missile systems.

Regarding the Air Force Minuteman III program, the report says that as long as support remains through 2030, there is no reason the SRMs used to power the long-range nuclear missiles can’t be maintained during that period. However, given changes to the rocket motors that are wrapping up under a propulsion replacement program, the service won’t know about the life expectancy of rockets until around 2014 or 2015, the report says. It adds that the Air Force approach to sustaining the industrial base depends also on other programs such as the D-5.

The Navy has chosen to sustain the operational life of the D-5 missile by maintaining minimal levels of production, which provides stability for the industrial base, enables future development and production, and addresses congressional concerns, DoD says. However, it says the Navy’s approach doesn’t "adequately address" maintaining the workforce skills for developing next generation strategic systems.

The Navy currently plans to continue producing rocket motors to support D-5 deployment through 2042, the report says. However, it notes, "The current inventory of D-5 rocket motors is insufficient to support a service life of 30 years. This approach still leaves a gap in development skills which degrade over time."

SRMs are used in strategic, missile defenses, tactical missiles and space launch systems. Alliant Techsystems [ATK] and GenCorp‘s [GY] Aerojet division are the two remaining prime contractors in the United States for SRMs. Both companies can design and produce small and large SRMs for any of the missile systems the nation needs, DoD says.

The report reviews DoD and NASA future years budgets and commercial space launch forecasts to determine how both ATK and Aerojet’s business will be affected. Pointing to a number of evaluations of the SRM industrial base that have already been done, the new report says that "All evaluations indicate that there is not enough business to sustain two large SRM producers. ATK has most of the Department and NASA production contracts for large SRMs; with Aerojet surviving mostly on its work with the Air Force R&D program. Aerojet and ATK share the small SRM production work."

Given that demand for SRM production is expected to weaken further, this may reduce the number of prime contractors to one, DoD says. An alternative to this may be ATK consolidating its operations for large SRM production.

In comments routinely made about the nation’s aerospace and defense industry, the report also says that DoD and NASA need new programs in order to "grow future SRM scientists and engineers."

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