U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Cole Strain loads a Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System into a launcher during Exercise Koolendong at Bradshaw Field Training Area, NT, Australia, Aug. 29, 2021.

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Cole Strain loads a Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System into a launcher during Exercise Koolendong at Bradshaw Field Training Area, NT, Australia, Aug. 29, 2021. U.S. Marine Corps / Cpl. Colton K. Garrett

How X-Bow plans to break the Northrop-Aerojet ‘duopoly’ on rocket motors

The New Mexico-based startup aims to have its first production line up and running in a few months.

Newly established Pentagon supplier of solid rocket motors X-Bow Systems says its advanced methods will set it apart from the defense primes currently making the motors that power a host of U.S. missiles.

The country's solid-rocket industry has been consolidated into two domestic suppliers: Aerojet Rocketdyne, which was recently bought by L3Harris Technologies, and Orbital ATK, which was purchased by Northrop Grumman in 2018. 

But calling Northrop and Aerojet’s hold on production a “duopoly” is “charitable at best,” said X-Bow CEO Jason Hundley in a recent interview. The Pentagon’s process for awarding solid rocket motor contracts is “very non-competitive,” he said: when DOD puts major programs up for bid, it “will specifically hand most of the award to one company, but they will automatically hand one of the stages to the other company."

Defense prime Lockheed Martin doesn’t currently build its own rocket motors, but is in late-stage negotiations with a candidate to do just that.  

Asked whether X-Bow is that unnamed company in talks with Lockheed, Hundley said, “I am not spending any significant personal capital thinking about those things. We're really focused on growing the business right now.” 

The Defense Department earlier this month accepted X-Bow as a new supplier of rocket motors and awarded the company a $64 million contract to speed up the development and fielding of hypersonic weapons.

“As long as we can educate the DOD that there is new competition out there, that they need to do competitive procurements, I think we're going to be winning on innovation and on price and on speed to get up to production, and they'll either start changing their own business model and practices, which is great for the taxpayer, or we're going to win a lot of business,” Hundley said. 

The company opened a new facility in Luling, Texas, earlier this year, and plans to set up three production lines that will deliver more than three million pounds of total propellant force annually, Hundley said. The first line will be up and running in the next few months, he said, and X-Bow plans to have all three lines up and running in the next year and a half. 

Three million pounds roughly translates to more than 300 hypersonics weapons, which use 10,000-pound-size rocket motors, he said. 

“The stuff that's being let off in Ukraine is much smaller. The ATAMCS and the GMLRS are like 1,000-pound-class. So basically, we could be making thousands of those a year,” Hundley said. 

The Pentagon wants to boost the production of solid rocket motors to replenish U.S. stockpiles after thousands of Javelins, Stingers, and GMLRS rockets have been sent to Ukraine.

“I'm now hearing that the estimate it's going to take us just over a decade with the traditional production approach to replenish what's already been let off [in Ukraine], and that is just the U.S.,” Hundley said. “I think the NATO countries are realizing because they did not have much stockpiles to begin with…their estimates on what they should have on hand in case of a conflict was woefully underestimated.” 

Not only does industry need to step up production to replenish current stockpiles, but it also needs to build solid rocket motors to power new hypersonic weapons, Hundley said. 

“With the push on the hypersonic side, and with this replenishment need, I can't speak 15 years from now, but it feels like everything that we're hearing is, there should be two or three X-Bows of maturity out there now, and we could probably still not meet the capacity demand,” he said. 

The company has also worked with the Air Force Research Lab in recent years and was awarded a $17.8 million contract to further develop its 3D printing technology. 

AFRL is “looking at new ways of manufacturing energetics and missiles and [making] a big push in the digital engineering approach. That aligns very well with the technology that we were developing,” he said. 

Over the next few years, X-Bow aims to prove its manufacturing process by producing and testing its digital twin designs, Hundley said. 

“That's a huge feature of what we're going to be doing with the Air Force because that's not really been tested in the community yet,” he said.