Northrop Grumman wins $13.3bn contract with US Air Force to kick off Minuteman III ICBM replacement

Last one standing after Boeing's 2019 bail

Northrop Grumman has won an eye-watering $13.3bn deal to update the US's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system.

The effort will span 8.5 years and the US Air Force expects "initial operational capability" by 2029. The contract value only covers the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program. There will be many more tens of billions shovelled into the trough in which contractors' snouts will rummage.

“Our nation is facing a rapidly evolving threat environment and protecting our citizens with a modern strategic deterrent capability has never been more critical,” claimed Kathy Warden, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Northrop Grumman, in a canned statement.

The Northrop Grumman GBSD team includes a range of sub-contractors including Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, and "hundreds of small and medium-sized companies from across the defense, engineering and construction industries", the company said.

Back in 2019, Northrop Grumman found itself the sole bidder for the contract after Boeing dropped out of the competition citing its rival's dominance of the solid rocket market as a factor in the withdrawal.

The GBSD is a replacement for the ageing Minuteman III (LGM-30G) program, the last in the Minuteman program which saw Boeing selected as the prime contractor back in 1958. Full operational capability of the Minuteman III was declared in 1975, and a project lifespan of 10 years given.

In 1993, Boeing redesigned the guidance electronics of the missile to extend things past 2020, with the last of the upgraded kit delivered in 2009. In 2012 the US Air Force noted that $7bn had been spent on updating the 450 missiles.

Boeing: Nah

However, all good things must come to an end. The Minuteman is a three stage solid-fuelled rocket, and with Northrop Grumman's dominance of the solids market, Boeing declined to bid on the GBSD program, effectively handing over the contract.

Northrop Grumman demonstrated its solid rocket prowess recently with a firing of the monster booster to be bolted to the sides of Boeing's SLS core stage for NASA's Artemis I mission. It also acquired Orbital ATK in 2018, notable for the Minotaur and Pegasus solid-fuelled rockets as well as the Antares, which features a liquid fuelled first stage and solid fuelled second stage as well a choice of propellants for the third stage.

The Antares is currently used to launch Northrop Grumman's Cygnus freighter to the International Space Station.

And as for those "ageing" Minuteman rockets? Northrop's Minotaur I used rocket motors from decommissioned hardware, so there is every chance a second, non-world-ending, life could beckon. ®

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