Murphy's Law: Making Norway Great Again

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February 19, 2017: In response to a 2011 failure of American rocket motor manufacturer (ATK) to fix a quality problem a foreign firm, Nammo, has been given enough business to justify setting up a manufacturing facility in the United States. The cause of this was the 2011 discovery that American rocket motors for AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and similar missiles were defective. This was noted during testing that the U.S. Air Force performs on a few of every new batch of missiles. The problem here was that when the rocket motors were exposed to very cold conditions (as would happen when an aircraft is flying at a high altitude) they become unreliable. This should have been quickly fixed by the manufacturer but that did not happen and things went downhill from there.

This caused delays in deliveries of some 900 missiles to Taiwan, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Finland, South Korea, Morocco, Chile, Jordan, Kuwait, Singapore, and Turkey. The rocket motor problems also delayed deliveries of the Sparrow missiles, which use an ATK motor. Desperate for a solution the United States was forced to seek foreign manufacturers who could produce rocket motors that worked. That turned out to be Norwegian ammunition manufacturer Nammo which began delivering a hundred motors a month in early 2013. After about a year the backlog was largely eliminated. The former American supplier, ATK, eventually figured out what it had done wrong and came up with a way to fix its rocket motor. But the long delay in fixing the problem it created gave Nammo, a much smaller firm, an opportunity to grab a portion of the American rocket motor market. ATK found the problem. It was caused by a changes in the formula for the rocket propellant to comply with environmental regulations. Without anyone at ATK noticing this allowed a flaw to appear that led to ATK rocket motors becoming unreliable under certain conditions. It took over two years to sort all this out. Because of the rocket motor problems and the time it took to find another supplier, it will take more time to catch up on the backlog.

The air force and the navy have had an increasing number of incidents where their suppliers of high-tech weapons and equipment screwed up. Cancelling orders and taking manufacturers to court has not eliminated the problems. The military accuses the manufacturers of having a bad attitude, feeling that if there are problems it's easier to cozy up to members of Congress than it is to fix the technical problems. So far, that seems to be working, while the weapons and equipment don't. U.S. manufacturers tried to get a law passed to keep Nammo out, but that failed.

Because of the two year delay in deliveries the AMRAAM manufacturer (Raytheon) has had to do some damage control with customers. There are other missiles like AMRAAM out there. Israel has some very nice stuff. So Raytheon added some warranty and financial sweeteners and hoped that none of the impatient customers get into a war while they were waiting for their long delayed AMRAAMs. That helped but the reputation of ATK and the one other American solid fuel rocket motor manufacturer never recovered, giving Nammo an opening that it took advantage of.

AMRAAM entered service in the early 1990s as a successor to Sparrow. Until 2011 there have never been problems with the rocket motors hat could not be quickly diagnosed and fixed. AMRAAM has been around for a while and undergone several upgrades, without problems appearing in components that are often unchanged for decades. But there have been many upgrades, including a lot of new stuff. Thus, it was always suspected that some of the ingredients of the solid fuel (a slow burning explosive) rocket had changed and chemists scrambled to find out what change did what. That took a lot longer than expected and that was considered unacceptable.

AMRAAM entered service in 1992, more than 30 years after the first radar guided air-to-air missile (the AIM-7 Sparrow) appeared. AMRAAM was designed to fix all the reliability and ease-of-use problems that cursed the AIM-7. But AMRAAM has only had a few opportunities to be used in combat but over half of those launched have hit something. The AIM-120D version entered service five years ago, has longer range, greater accuracy, and resistance to countermeasures. So far AMRAAMs have spent nearly 2 million hours hanging from the wings of jet fighters in flight. Some 2,400 AMRAAMs have been fired, mostly in training or testing operations. That’s about a quarter of those produced.

AMRAAM weighs 172 kg (335 pounds), is 3.7 meters (12 feet) long, and 178mm (7 inches) in diameter. AMRAAM has a max range of 70 kilometers. These missiles cost about a million dollars each. They are complex mechanical, electronic, and chemical systems and each of them, on average, suffers a component failure every 1,500 hours.

 


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