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Monday, April 8, 2024

Pentagon ramps up investments in solid rocket motor suppliers to bolster domestic industry

Test of an X-Bow Systems additively manufactured solid propellant. Credit: X-Bow Systems

COLORADO SPRINGS — The Defense Department is directing investments towards a cadre of newer entrants in the solid rocket motors market.These bets on new suppliers come amid concerns ↗ about overreliance on a shrinking pool of domestic suppliers and a surge in demand for these solid rocket motors, a key component in hypersonic weapons, conventional and nuclear missiles.

U.S. defense programs are now entirely dependent on Northrop Grumman and L3Harris, which acquired Aerojet Rocketdyne last year, for solid rocket motors. Unlike their liquid-fueled counterparts, these rocket engines use a solid propellant — a stick of fuel and oxidizer pre-mixed and molded into a specific shape.

These motors are used to power a wide range of military applications, from tactical missiles to the nation’s nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. The ongoing conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have further strained existing production capacity for tactical solid rocket motors.

New entrants break ground

X-Bow Systems, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, over the past year has secured nearly $100 million in contracts, including multiple agreements ↗ worth over $35 million from the Air Force Research Laboratory ↗ and a separate $64 million contract ↗ to supply large solid rocket motors to the Navy and Army.

Lockheed Martin Ventures ↗ is among X-Bow’s private investors.

“This is the first expansion in the solid rocket motors industrial base since the Cold War,” Jason Hundley, chief executive of X-Bow, told SpaceNews. “We’ve underestimated the size of the throughput of what we need.”

Hundley pointed out that X-Bow expects to have half a dozen solid rocket motor programs in production by the end of the year. 

Colorado-based Ursa Major, another emerging player, on April 8 announced a contract with the Naval Energetics Systems and Technologies (NEST) program. The value of the agreement was not disclosed, but the company said the focus is on developing and testing a prototype solid rocket motor for the Navy’s Standard Missile program, a cornerstone of fleet air defense.

Chief executive Joe Laurienti ↗ said the company sees an opportunity to use additive manufacturing, often referred to as 3D printing,  to disrupt an industry constrained by outdated processes. He said Ursa Major plans to leverage its expertise in both solid and liquid rocket engines to design and manufacture a new motor specifically tailored to the Navy’s Standard nissile’s requirements.

Another potential player in the sector is defense contractor Anduril Industries. In response to DoD’s growing demand, Anduril last year acquired Adranos ↗, a small manufacturer of solid rocket motors founded in 2015. The company said it plans to invest in Adranos’s solid rocket manufacturing facility in Mississippi to increase production rates.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense…
More by Sandra Erwin

Michael Maren
Michael Maren
Former marine biologist who likes to spend as much time in the tropics as possible, due to a horrible time I once had in Alaska. Brrrr.

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