WASHINGTON — The Norwegian company that saved the Air Force’s Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) production will gain a new foothold in the eroding US domestic tactical solid rocket motors industrial base.
Nammo has established a public-private partnership with the US Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Division at Indian Head — home of the Naval Surface Warfare Center — in Maryland, to produce tactical solid rocket motors and develop new technology to boost the US industry.
Nammo is making a significant financial investment into the infrastructure at Indian Head, not supplemented by the Pentagon or the Navy. The company will install equipment and pour brick and mortar to transform the facility and plans to be there for the long haul. The agreement is not just for multiple years but for multiple decades.
Beginning about two years ago, the company looked across a number of potential locations that would be favorable to Nammo’s type of energetics work and ultimately chose Indian Head.
The company will essentially revitalize the facility that is now considered underutilized. While the facility has a strong history associated with production and manufacturing of solid rocket motors and tactical warheads, it has not been able to compete against industry because the assets were not used to their full potential.
Nammo is known as the company that turned around the AMRAAM program when the Air Force discovered reliability issues during tests with ATK-manufactured rocket motors in 2010. The problems got so bad that the Air Force didn’t receive deliveries of the missile for two years, severely reducing the AMRAAM supply. Raytheon and ATK sued each other in 2013 over the rocket engine issue and reached a confidential settlement.
The company invested over $12 million of its own money in an alternative rocket motor for AMRAAM and got the Norwegian Air Force to fly the motors to Raytheon’s production facility in Tuscon, Arizona, at no charge to the US government in 2011. Nammo turned around a two-year production lag and put the missile program ahead of schedule.
The Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile’s (ESSM) rocket motor is also manufactured by Nammo.
But Nammo has had success with these programs against a backdrop of a struggling US tactical solid rocket motors industrial base.
A report to Congress on the industry, delivered to the Hill in October 2015, expressed concern with the “health, stability and capabilities” of the domestic rocket motor producers.
The rocket motor sector is not supported by a complementary commercial market, specifically the solid rocket motor propulsion industry “is mostly defense unique,” the report found.
There are essentially two US prime contractors for solid rocket motors — Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Both companies in the past have produced the rocket motors for AMRAAM. The number of producers in the US has dropped since the 1980s from five to two.
And there is also a limited number of new-start missile opportunities. The Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM), the Hellfire replacement, is the newest, but the Army is modifying an existing missile rather than using new designs.
“Declining missile research and development funding, coupled with limited competitive opportunities projected in the near-term for new missile systems, makes it difficult for the missile sector industry to attract and retain a workforce with the industrial capabilities to design, develop and produce future missile systems that will meet national security requirements,” the report to Congress said.
The pickings are slim enough that Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne attempted two years in a row — in 2015 and 2016 — to insert legislation into the defense policy bill that would “ensure” that every Defense Department tactical missile program that uses solid propellant as the primary propulsion system has “at least one rocket motor supplier within the national technology and industrial base.”
The measure — which failed to make it into the final fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act as an amendment by two votes in an emotional episode on the House floor — could have shut out Nammo from the programs it supports in the US, as a worst-case scenario for the company.
For Nammo, the partnership with Indian Head will not only put it on the same playing field as domestic suppliers but could help jump-start new rocket motor development.
The partnership with Indian Head shows Nammo has recognized, especially after two years of fighting legislation that would have favored US rocket motor manufacturers, that there is pressure to build in the US, and the arrangement will give rocket motors and associated technology produced in the facility an American thumbprint.
And while there is competition in the US for rocket motor business, the company’s development work in the US could refresh that competition and drive the industry to become more cost effective.
The Indian Head partnership will also have a strong focus on research and development associated with next-generation rocket motor technology. Moreover, the technology that is grown out of the Indian Head facility will feed the engineering and science-and-technology fields in the sector and create jobs.
Besides building up the industrial base, Nammo plans to introduce technology to the US that will trigger new competitions within the Defense Department by getting ahead of the curve.
And as foreign adversaries continue to grow munitions capabilities, it is only a matter of time before the market opens up for new, more capable munitions and the Defense Department makes missile development a priority again. Some of the munitions in the US inventory have been around for 20 to 25 years.
The new partnership agreement will be officially minted in a ceremony on January 19 at the Indian Head facility. The partnership with Nammo Energetics Indian Head is the third partnership of this kind at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Explosive Ordnance Disposal Division (NSWC IHEODTD) under the Center for Industrial and Technical Excellence (CITE) designation, according to the Navy.