A U.S. Army paratrooper fires an FGM-148 Javelin shoulder-fired, anti-tank missile during a combined arms live-fire exercise at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, August 21, 2019.

A U.S. Army paratrooper fires an FGM-148 Javelin shoulder-fired, anti-tank missile during a combined arms live-fire exercise at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, August 21, 2019. U.S. Army / Sgt. Henry Villarama

L3Harris points to suppliers for slowdown in rocket-motor production

CEO says he’s working to get the newly acquired Aerojet Rocketdyne back on track by next year.

L3Harris Technologies says it's executing a plan to boost solid rocket motor production after acquiring Aerojet Rocketdyne and hopes to solve its main problem: getting sub-components from smaller companies on time. 

The Pentagon sees L3Harris as “the answer to the challenges and problems that they in the industry has had relative to rocket motors and we have their full support,” CEO Chris Kubasik said Thursday during the company’s third-quarter earnings call.

Aerojet has struggled to fill rocket-motor orders in recent years, frustrating Raytheon Technologies and other customers. In regulatory filings last year, Aerojet officials blamed “cost growth from supply chain disruptions and necessary technical and manufacturing changes.”

Kubasik, whose company closed its $4.7 billion acquisition of Aerojet in July, promised “noticeable improvements” in rocket motor output by the end of 2024.

One analyst called the acquisition a “potential solution” to rocket motor production woes, as long as L3Harris follows through on its plan to invest in Aerojet to get the company up to snuff. 

“They pursued this acquisition knowing that the Pentagon was very keen on preserving competition, and this will likely be key in providing L3Harris the leeway to get Aerojet up to speed,” said Rich Pettibone, an analyst with Forecast International, a sister brand to Defense One.

L3Harris has already deployed its own leadership team to run Aerojet, and has shut down Aerojet’s headquarters in California, Kubasik said. 

“We've supplemented the existing leadership teams at some of the key locations in Alabama, Arkansas, and Virginia with resources and experience that I think is going to start showing immediate results,” he said. 

In April, the Pentagon gave Aerojet $216 million to expand its facilities in these three locations to speed up the manufacturing of Javelin, Stinger, and GMLRS rockets that have been sent to Ukraine. 

“Everything we’re doing” is to increase rocket motor deliveries, Kubasik said. L3Harris has developed a plan to get production up, including setting up separate “centers of excellence” for “energetics and inert” components, which will help with deliveries, he said. 

The executive pointed to sub-tier suppliers as the main problem hampering solid rocket motor and munition production. 

“We only have, in some cases, one or two certified suppliers of cases and igniters and sometimes nozzles. So that is ultimately a choke point that we need to focus on as an industry in this country,” Kubasik said. 

There are gaps in Aerojet’s sub-tier suppliers’ ability to provide “critical components” like cases, nozzles, and igniters, Tyler Evans, president of missile solutions at Aerojet, told Defense One Thursday.

The company needs to eliminate “single points of failure” in that supply chain, he said. 

“If you have a failure with a bottleneck process, you can't deliver what you need [to], you've got to wait on it. So what I would say is, that's the area that we're now turning attention to try and create some more resilience and robustness,” Evans said. 

The U.S. needs to ramp up to a “wartime footing,” Kubasik said, and “money and focus” need to go to sub-tier companies that supply the primes. 

Industry is racing to step up production of rocket motors to replenish current stockpiles that have been sent to Ukraine, while also scaling up to build motors to power new hypersonic weapons. 

Only three months into the acquisition, Aerojet and L3Harris are still at the beginning of their integration, Evans said, but L3Harris is “very supportive” of and interested in accelerating the fielding of hypersonic weapons. 

Aerojet will use some of L3Harris’s “best practices” in engineering and manufacturing development programs, Evans said.  

“We're also looking at, again, do they have innovations that we may not have known about that we could potentially apply to our solutions. So I'm telling you things that we're going to work on, not necessarily things that we've done because it's early,” he said.