NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Months after announcing it would not bid on the Air Force’s ICBM replacement program, Boeing is officially lobbying both Congress and the service to force a shotgun marriage with Northrop Grumman, against the latter company’s will.
Frank McCall, Boeing’s director of strategic deterrence systems, told reporters Tuesday that the company was actively seeking “government intervention” on the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, one which would require Northrop to add Boeing as at least a major sub-contractor, if not a co-equal partner.
“We think clearly it’s time for the Air Force or other governmental entities to engage and direct the right solution. Northrop has elected not to do that,” McCall said during the Air Force Association’s annual conference. “So we’re looking for government intervention to drive us to the best solution.”
Technically, GBSD is still an open competition. However, Northrop stands as the only competitor still making a bid. Lockheed Martin was knocked out in late 2017, and Boeing dropped out of the competition in July. Boeing claimed Northrop’s acquisition of solid-fueled rocket motor manufacturer Orbital ATK, now known as Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, gave the competitor an unfair advantage.
Boeing has since made overtures toward Northrop, arguing that a partnership involving the two companies would benefit the development of GBSD. But Boeing on Friday announced that Northrop had rejected any teaming attempts. Now, it seems, the company has decided to stop playing nice and start getting real.
McCall reiterated that Boeing would not be bidding as a prime on the GBSD request for proposal as is. He also would not rule out the possibility of launching a protest with the Government Accountability Office, should the Air Force not force Northrop to accept Boeing as part of its team.
“I’m not spending any time thinking, ‘what if it doesn’t work.’ We’re going to make it work,” he said.
Both Boeing and Northrop are currently under contract for a tech maturation phase, which runs into next year. Asked whether the company was worried whether its TMRR contract could be cancelled early given its stance that it will not bid, McCall said: “Certainly that’s a concern."
However, “the service is maintaining our work," he added. They continue to accept our deliverables, continue to fund our contract. So, I think we’re in good shape with the service.”
Because both teams are under that development contract, McCall argued that the Air Force should take the two teams and let them begin sharing information, with the service making the final decision on what pieces of each bid would work best when combined.
“What I am suggesting is the Air Force pull us in a room together and say ‘you’ve got 30 days to go figure out what is the right integrated baseline for the country to move forward with,’” he said. “While we have offered to Northrop a menu of things to choose from, we think the Air Force is really in a better position to go through that menu, go through the Northrop menu, and select the best option for the future.”
Should the Air Force not choose that route, McCall was open that Boeing has begun engaging members of Congress to circumvent the Pentagon and force its hand.
He pointed to Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama as someone who has already raised shown support for Boeing’s position. McCall declined to name others, but should this turn into a legislative fight, it could come down to Boeing’s supporters – with strongholds in Alabama, Washington and Missouri – versus those of Northrop Grumman.
A wild card may come in the form of Lockheed Martin, who was announced as part of a ten-company national team for Northrop’s bid earlier this week; as the world’s largest defense firm, Lockheed could bring to bear significant firepower in Congress, and would likely be happy to knock Boeing out of the ICBM game.
The Boeing executive declined to say what specific parts of the GBSD program Boeing was targeting should it end up with Northrop, but indicated that nuclear command and control — part of Lockheed’s workshare under Northrop’s planned team — would be one aree where Boeing’s experience could come into play.
Asked what percentage of workshare on the program Boeing would be satisfied with should the team-up happen, McCall declined to give a number, saying: “We told Northrop, we don’t care if you’re the prime or we’re the prime. We’re not dictating a workshare percentage.”
Updated 9/18/19 at 9:19 AM eastern to clarify McCall’s comments on Jones.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.