NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Orbital ATK has hired more people and is expanding facilities as it anticipates a surge in Defense Department advanced missile and munitions technology needs.
In addition to hiring 1,000 more people, “we have invested a decent number of millions, tens of millions, in a number of our facilities to support readiness,” Mike Kahn, Orbital ATK’s defense group president, told Defense News in an April 10 interview at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference.
Orbital will soon be a part of Northrop Grumman, which bought the company late last year in a $9.2 billion deal.
The company recently invested heavily in its Allegany Ballistics Laboratory in Rocket Center, West Virginia, where it builds rocket motors, warheads and fuses because it’s anticipating a “significant increase” stemming specifically from Army programs that are ramping up in the next few years, according to Kahn.
In Mesa, Arizona, Orbital ATK broke ground on a new facility to allow it to double the capacity of its industry-standard Bushmaster cannon line.
And the company is increasing the capacity to handle building two times as many of its Precision Guided Kits that are used to transform 155mm Howitzer rounds. Orbital ATK just celebrated the manufacturing of its 25,000th PGK.
In its Lake City, Missouri, ammunition plant, Orbital has been investing, for a number of years, both in capacity growth and process controls, as well as safety upgrades, Kahn said.
Orbital also opened a new facility a year ago in California to build the extended range version of its Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM).
The military requested in its fiscal year 2019 budget $20.7 billion in missiles and munitions. The Army, specifically plans to buy more critical missiles and rockets and 148,287 155mm artillery projectiles for which Orbital supplies PGKs.
The Army is also planning to plus-up its Hellfire missiles, Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS) and Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) stock, which means more business for Orbital as well which supplies rocket motors for Hellfire and GMLRS and will also supply the rocket motor for the Hellfire replacement, the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM).
GMLRS and Hellfire rocket motors are produced at the company’s West Virginia facility.
And there’s more DoD money for hypersonic and ramjet development and other technologies to extend ranges out to strategic distances, which Orbital ATK is also investing in heavily.
Orbital is also setting its site on ways to improve technology within its current systems to meet the needs of the services in the future, according to Kahn.
Orbital’s AARGM is currently only fielded for use on the Navy’s F-18 Super Hornets, but, by the end of the year, the company will be turning on production for the full engineering and manufacturing development phase for the extended-range version, which will allow it to be used in the F-35, Kahn said.
The AARGM-ER is slated for initial fielding either in 2022 or 2023 and following that the Air Force will work on integrating the weapon into a block upgrade for the F-35.
The Navy’s requirements are quite similar to the Army’s in terms of increasing range and lethality of its missiles and munitions, Bart Olson, the company’s defense group vice president, said in the same interview.
In recent years, the company has demonstrated how it can transform the Navy’s 5-inch guns to go farther and hit targets more precisely by providing a PGK variant for the rounds.
“And we are talking to the Navy and Marines about helping them with lethality upgrades centered around the land combat or sea combat areas,” Olson added.
With that in mind, the company is trying to foster interest in the Navy and Marines to move to a 30mm variant of the Bushmaster cannon. Currently the two services have fielded 25mm Bushmaster cannons. The 30mm cannon will get after a desire for more range and more lethality, Olson said.
The Army has already upgunned its Stryker fighting vehicle with a 30mm Bushmaster cannon and has sent the variant to Europe for evaluation with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment there.
Orbital also has a quick way for those using 30mm cannons to switch from 30mm to 40mm if desired, in less an hour, according to Kahn.
The company is also developing a full family of ammunition for the 40mm barrel, to include a practice round, a high-explosive dual purpose round, an armor penetrating round and an airburst round.
And Orbitals M230 chain gun used on Apache helicopters is now cropping up on ground platforms using a remote weapon station.
The company is also investing in advanced ammunition, such as programming 30mm rounds to be airburst rounds, which has great utility in countering unmanned aircraft systems, for example.
Orbital has a deployed a counter-UAS system with ground forces, but has ways to convert it to be used on ships or at sea ports.
And Orbital has also developed a way to guide small ammunition to hit even moving targets, Kahn noted.
The company took a 50-caliber round with precision guidance and hit moving targets in tests through the EXACTO program with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency several years back, Olson said.
Advanced ammunition has great utility for programs like the F-35, Kahn said, because instead of shooting 30 or 40 rounds to hit a target, a guided round can take out a target in one or two shots. An F-35 is limited to carrying roughly 200 rounds.
The company has also used internal research and development dollars to build and qualify its Hatchet precision glide weapon, which is a 6-lb, air deliver munition that can be used from aircraft ranging from UAS, rotary-wing, fixed-wing fighters and bomber aircraft.
The system can be deployed as a single weapon or used as a swarming weapon.
Orbital plans to reach a technology readiness level of 7 by the end of the year through a live, guide-to-hit test.
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.