WASHINGTON ― House Armed Services Committee Rep. Adam Smith on Thursday said he plans to take on what he called the Air Force’s “troubling” procurement process for its Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, and that he favors a lower number of modernized ICBMs instead of the new program.
Smith, D-Wash., a powerful skeptic of America’s giant nuclear weapons budget, questioned the need for the $63 billion program, which is the Air Force’s replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile fleet. He decried the likely award to Northrop Grumman, suggested the Air Force was biased in its favor and said he would look to review the matter through the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
Smith said that Boeing ― which has a large presence in his home state ― had declined his offer to intervene with the Air Force after it announced it would not bid on the Air Force’s ICBM replacement program.
Boeing itself said last month that it was seeking government intervention that would require Northrop to add Boeing as at least a major sub-contractor, if not a co-equal partner. Smith also said Boeing was not interested when he extended an offer to ensure greater competition through language in the 2020 defense policy bill.
“Right now we are in the middle of doing the GBSD, the new ICBM, and by the way, it’s going to be a sole-source contract. As we’re looking at that, there is plenty of argument that we can extend the life of the existing ICBMS, if we rely on fewer,” Smith said, an event sponsored by the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear weapons group.
Though Smith said the GBSD award would be sole source, he did acknowledge that there were at one point three companies bidding. Both Boeing and Northrop were awarded risk reduction contracts worth up to $359 million in 2017, beating out Lockheed Martin for the chance to bring their designs into the production stage.
Smith also said, in passing, that the Air Force had at some point shared Boeing’s proprietary information with Northop. He did not disclose specifics.
“The thing to do would be to address the concerns Boeing raised about the procurement process, because if Boeing is to believed, they didn’t say we just can’t do this any more, they said the process wasn’t fair,” he said. “We offered, and Boeing didn’t want us too.
“We’re going to revisit this in next year’s NDAA and see if we can get Boeing to work with us to figure out, how can we create the right procurement process for them to participate, but I don’t consider that likely based on the conversations we’ve had to date,” Smith said.
Smith also alluded to his legislative efforts to put SpaceX and Blue Origin ― which is also headquartered in Smith’s home state ― on a stronger footing to compete in the National Security Space Launch program. As reported by Space News, he previously said the Air Force’s decision to select two providers in 2020 to split all national security launches from 2022 to 2026, favors incumbents like United Launch Alliance.
Smith rapped the Air Force procurement process, overall, as "way too close to the contractors they are working with, and they seem to show bias to one or the other. It could be incompetence, but I think it is more likely that they like their historical partners.
“The way they handed the ULA relationship at the expense of emerging competitors is costing the taxpayers an enormous amount of money and denying us the ability to benefit from competition,” Smith said. “I suspect some of the same things are happening in the GBSD program ― so yes, that is very troubling.”
Smith’s criticism comes after top Pentagon officials have publicly backed the Air Force process on GBSD. During a confirmation hearing Wednesday, Vice Admiral Charles Richard, the nominee to head U.S. Strategic Command, said he had "great confidence" in how the service is handling the contract.
Ellen Lord, the department's acquisition head, said Oct. 18 that the request for proposal was "well written" by the service and pushed back on the idea that the contract will benefit only Northrop.
“What we did on that competition is we put in language so that we have visibility, transparency in cost and pricing. So we will be able to determine the value, if you will, of what's being delivered,” Lord said.
“There are also multiple significant subsystems within GBSD, where there are multiple potential suppliers on the one team from Northrop Grumman who has gone public with that.”
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.