WASHINGTON — An attempt to insert an amendment into the House fiscal 2017 defense policy bill that would have required the certification of a second rocket motor supplier for tactical missile programs, if the first supplier is foreign, failed by two votes on the House floor Wednesday.
Reps. David McKinley, R-W.Va.; John Delaney, D-Md.; Paul Cook, R-Calif.; John Garamendi, D-Calif.; and Andy Harris, R-Md., submitted an amendment to the policy bill, first reported by Defense News, that would require — in the event a rocket motor is supplied by a foreign company — that tactical missile programs using solid propellant as the primary propulsion be required to have at least two fully certified rocket motor suppliers.
There was shouting on the House floor to keep the vote open as members changed their votes and the totals wobbled back and forth before settling on the final tally of 211 to 213. Near the end of the voting a woman who appeared to be a staffer urged a lawmaker not to vote yes, saying, "It's an earmark!" And one lawmaker could be heard shouting "Vote no! Vote no!"
The emotional vote Wednesday gets to the heart of the division between House lawmakers who believed the bill would help an ailing rocket motor industrial base in the United States and those who saw it as an earmark targeting one tactical missile program saved by a foreign rocket motor supplier from Norway.
Last year McKinley inserted a measure into the House Armed Services Committee's defense policy bill without public debate that would "ensure" that every Defense Department tactical missile program that uses solid propellant as the primary propulsion system have at least one rocket motor supplier within the national technology and industrial base.
But the proposed legislation could have shut out a Norwegian company from the US Air Force missile program that it essentially saved. Nammo, a manufacturer of ammunition and missiles, provides the rocket motor for Raytheon's Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), a critical missile within the service and also used by dozens of foreign nations.
Opponents to the proposed policy circulated a memo last year that called it an "earmark" and argued the language had no basis other than a US producer was seeking a political solution to a business problem. The measure identified one area of weapons acquisition and singularly expanded current policy into law benefiting only two domestic rocket motor producers — Orbital ATK, based in West Virginia, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, based in California.
A similar attempt to insert language in the Senate's version of the 2016 defense policy bill failed, and the House language did not survive in conference committee.
But, according to a memo obtained by Defense News with both Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne's logos stamped across the top, the legislation is necessary to help a suffering solid rocket motor industrial base in the US.
"Limited new tactical motor programs, coupled with few planned upgrades to existing tactical missile programs, have placed the domestic industrial base of [solid rocket motors] at risk, a situation made worse by outsourcing rocket motor production to foreign suppliers," the memo said.
The number of domestic producers of such rocket motors has dropped since the 1980s from five to two due to a "significant" reduction in the number of new tactical missile programs and the tendency by the Pentagon to cut missile procurement in order to pay other bills, according to the memo.
The memo said that "increased support of a shrinking SRM industrial base is warranted given the limited number of new and planned upgrade missile programs that are identified in the out-year budget. To that end, it is recommended that a policy be adopted that ensures that at least two solid rocket motor suppliers be required in the event that one of the suppliers is foreign."
McKinley, in a floor debate on the amendment Tuesday, showed a stack of papers representing, year after year, government reports that expressed major concern with the dying industrial base in the US for tactical rocket motors. He argued the long-standing problem needs to have a solution.
Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz. — Raytheon's missile systems unit is in her district — argued against the amendment Tuesday and issued a letter Wednesday to her colleagues urging them to vote no on the measure. "While [the amendment] might sound reasonable on its surface in order to "protect US jobs," if enacted, it will result in congressionally induced degradation of vital military capabilities and cost increases," she wrote.
Proponents of the amendment also issued on Wednesday a "myth v. fact" information paper that argued the language was not at all an attempt to "buy American" for the sake of buying American and does not mandate the second supplier be a US company.
And proponents argued that going with a second supplier would not drive up costs of the rocket programs. One industry source noted that Nammo rocket motors are 20 percent to 30 percent more expensive than US rocket motors and argued that bringing in a supplier with lower costs would actually help to contain costs.
Also, one of the roadblocks for those in favor of the amendment was having to strike a balance in supporting NATO allies to foster trade agreements and possible foreign military sales, which is becoming more and more important in a declining budget environment.
Norway's ambassador wrote both Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member, expressing his concern over the amendment in terms of what it might mean for a long-established defense industrial partnership between Norway and the US. This comes at a time when Norway, for instance, has expressed interest in buying the F-35 joint strike fighter.
Thornberry voted to admit the amendment into the final bill and Smith voted against it.
The insertion of similar language in the Senate bill last year was rejected because it was seen as an attempt to force buying American regardless of quality. Whether the change in language not limiting a second supplier to US companies would cause the Senate to reconsider adding the measure to the defense policy bill this year remains in question.
Joe Gould, Defense News' congressional staff writer, contributed to this report.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.