Last week, United Technologies announced the pending sale of its Rocketdyne subsidiary to GenCorp. Rocketdyne’s principal claim to fame was as a maker of large, liquid-fueled rocket motors such as those that powered Atlas, Delta and Saturn rockets as well as the Space Shuttle. In its new home, Rocketdyne will be joining Aerojet, a long-time producer of both liquid and solid rocket boosters that powered NASA launch vehicles, U.S. strategic ballistic missiles and missile defense interceptors. The pending sale will reduce the number of major U.S. producers of large rocket boosters to two companies: the Aerojet/Rocketdyne team and Alliant Techsystems which built the Shuttle’s reusable solid rocket motors, Delta rockets, and Minuteman and Trident boosters. A few other companies retain some capability, particularly in the production of smaller rocket motors.
While the Rocketdyne sale is a good move for both corporations, it signals the problematic state of the U.S. large rocket motor industrial base. Put simply, the U.S. rocket motor industry is staring into an abyss. Over the past several decades, Rocketdyne had seen its business decline sharply, first as U.S. industry was aced out of the commercial launch business by foreign competition and second when NASA shut down the Shuttle program and rolled the dice on untested commercial launch providers for much of the future of this nation’s civil space launch capability. Add to the decline in NASA business the conclusion of the ICBM modernization program, a delay in the program to develop follow-ons for the Minuteman and Trident missiles and the cut back in purchases of the Ground-Based Interceptors for the National Missile Defense system, and the consequences for the industry as whole are dire. Not only are the large primes merging but the vendor base is shrinking at an alarming rate. Many precursor chemicals absolutely essential to the production of rocket fuel are no longer produced in the United States due to environmental legislation and must be acquired from countries such as China and France. For this administration, with its focus on competition at all costs in defense acquisition, to agree to the Rocketdyne sale suggests that the Pentagon also sees a difficult future ahead for the large rocket motor business.
Maintaining a robust rocket motor industrial base is vital to U.S. national security. It also is the best way to ensure competition for future contracts, technological innovation and a surge capability. Bluntly stated, this means changing this administration’s acquisition strategy on a number of programs from a new strategic missile to replace the Minuteman and Trident, purchases of Ground-Based Interceptors, and a return to manned space flights. Without question such changes will require additional funding in a time of fiscal austerity. But such expenditures are the price of providing for the national defense in the space age. In addition, money spent now to maintain a robust rocket motor industrial base will pay dividends in terms of technologies that reduce costs and prices established by a competitive contracting environment.
Unfortunately, such a change in acquisition strategy will have to await the outcome of the presidential elections. In the near-term, Congress and the Department of Defense need to get a handle on the problem. Secretary of Defense Panetta should direct the Defense Science Board to examine the current state of and future prospects for the propellant and rocket motor industrial base. If the Pentagon won’t do it, Congress should mandate such a study. Come January 20, the next administration will have to hit the ground running if it hopes to salvage this industrial sector.
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