As Industrial Base Shrinks, Concerns Rise Over Supply of Trident Missile Motors
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The officer responsible for ensuring that the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines continued their mission as the nation’s most survivable strategic nuclear deterrent is worried about the shrinking industrial base for the solid fuel rocket motors that propel the Trident D-5 strategic missiles.
“I remain concerned about the state of the large solid rocket motor providers, but increasingly concerned about their suppliers of critical constituents,” Vice Adm. Terry Benedict said June 2. “The large solid rocket motor industrial base has shrunk significantly. That has prompted our industrial partners to take extreme measures to right size the industrial base and to consolidate operations.”
Benedict, director of Strategic Systems Programs (SSP), noted that since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program the producers of large solid fuel rocket motors have shrunk to two: Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Those two firms are operating in an environment today in which “the need for solid rocket motors is significantly downsized from where it was,” Benedict told a breakfast held by the Mitchell Institute. To illustrate the scope of the reduced demand, the admiral said, “one Shuttle motor is equal to 10 Trident missiles.”
“Today, the U.S. Navy strategic missile program is the only program in production, at strategic level, for solid rocket motors,” Benedict said.
The situation is made worse by the fact that the Trident D-5 missiles use a different form of solid fuel than other rockets.
“So within a smaller solid rocket motor industry, I have an even smaller piece of that industrial pie. And, so, I’m very concerned as I watch the entire industry shrink when I have this requirement to build 12 Trident rocket motor sets a year,” he said.
“It doesn’t take but one partner to have technical or cost issues, or just decides to get into some other business, and as a nation we would be affected,” Benedict said.
The industrial base problem could be alleviated in future years when the Air Force program for a new missile to replace the Minuteman IIIs in the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program goes into production, Benedict said.
The admiral, who is in the seventh year of his eight-year tenure at SSP, also expressed concern about the increasing difficulty in hiring and retaining the talented young people he needs to replace a dedicated but aging workforce for his critical mission.
To reduce those personnel challenges, the prime contractor for the D-5s, Lockheed Martin, has agreed to move its production facilities from Sunnyvale, Calif., where it was in competition with the high-tech “giants.” which may be more attractive to younger people and can pay more, to Denver and the Florida “Space Coast,” he said.
Despite those concerns, Benedict said SSP was finishing tests of the Tridents whose service lives have been extended and has begun loading the updated missiles into the Ohio-class strategic missile submarines that make up the sea-based leg of the U.S. nuclear deterrent triad and represent about 70 percent of the nation’s deployed nuclear warheads allowed under the New Start nuclear arms control treaty.
Those missiles will arm the 14 Ohio-class subs and Great Britain’s four Vanguard-class strategic deterrence boats for their remaining service lives. They also will be the initial load out for the 12 Columbia-class submarines that will replace the Ohios and the Dreadnaughts that will replace the Vanguards, he said.
“Columbia remains the Navy’s top acquisition program and the largest acquisition program in the Department of Defense,” Benedict said, and has strong support in the Pentagon and Congress.