Camden, Arkansas isn’t the most obvious place to become a hub of aerospace innovation. Seat of rural Ouachita County in the state’s south-central region, Camden has been steadily losing population since a big paper mill closed in the 1990s. Its predominantly African American population today numbers no more than 11,000.
However, a combination of market forces and corporate strategizing has led Aerojet Rocketdyne, the nation’s most diversified rocket and missile propulsion company, to designate Camden as its “Center of Excellence” for solid rocket motors.
Solid rocket motors are used on everything from space launch vehicles to tactical missiles, thanks to their combination of high energy and low volatility. Liquid fuel is less stable and thus not suited to applications in which motors may need to be stored for long stretches of time.
For instance, the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles that sit in underground silos scattered across the upper Midwest rely on solid rocket motors. So do the submarine-launched ballistic missiles in the U.S. strategic force.
Aerojet has been manufacturing solid rocket motors—SRMs—in Camden since the late 1970s, but until recently it built its biggest such systems at the company’s heritage headquarters site in Sacramento, California.
However, performing such work in California has become increasingly difficult due to high costs and a burdensome regulatory environment. At one point, state regulators seemed intent on reducing the presence of one chemical in ground water near the Sacramento site below the normal, ambient level in other places.
Aerojet Rocketdyne executives led by CEO Eileen Drake, a former Army aviator who joined the company from United Technologies UTX 0.0% in 2015, concluded that if the company was to remain competitive with rivals, it would need to move large SRM production.
The shift to Camden was part of a broader company initiative to strengthen Aerojet’s competitive positioning in the marketplace, an effort that took on greater urgency when Northrop Grumman NOC -1.5% acquired the nation’s only other producer of “large solids” in 2017.
Aerojet ended up on Northrop’s team to build a replacement of Minuteman—it will manufacture one of the stages on a next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile—but there are other opportunities coming where Aerojet wants to be the low-cost supplier of choice.
These include work on hypersonic weapons and new missile defense interceptors to protect the American homeland.
Aerojet isn’t abandoning California. The company’s biggest site remains the headquarters of its space business in Canoga Park. But Aerojet needed to find locations where the manufacture of its unique products would cost less and not be quite so enmeshed in local regulations.
It chose to invest in the South, both in Camden and a separate advanced manufacturing facility at Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville was already a thriving center of aerospace innovation, but for Camden the arrival of a large SRM facility was a major stimulus to the local economy.
Located near the tech campus of Southern Arkansas University, Aerojet’s Camden site will have a thousand employees by year’s end working in over a million square feet of manufacturing space. The employee headcount will be nearly double what it was when Drake launched her competitiveness initiative in 2015.
Building a Large SRM Engineering and Manufacturing Development Facility at Camden will assure the U.S. continues to have at least two different sources for the motors that power America’s biggest missiles and launch vehicles.
But that is just the beginning of the investments Aerojet is making at Camden. It has also moved construction of solid rocket motors for the Pentagon’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system into two facilities there from Sacramento, and later this year it will open a Patriot Production Facility for motors on the most advanced version of that missile defense system.
Combined with the work Camden was already performing on propulsion for weapons such as the Navy’s Standard Missile family and Army tactical missiles, the 2,000-acre site will become one of the largest rocket and missile propulsion complexes in the world.
Like other centers of excellence in Aerojet’s reorganized production system, Camden will report to Chief Operating Officer Amy Gowder, who joined the company from Lockheed Martin LMT -1.2% earlier this year.
What all this demonstrates is that CEO Drake is determined to remain a first-tier player in every facet of the rocket and missile propulsion business.
But it also demonstrates something else. Market forces don’t always conspire to concentrate high-tech activities in places that are already over-endowed with opportunities. Sometimes, the logic of the marketplace encourages companies to be more creative.
That’s why Huntsville became one of the leading aerospace centers in the world, and its why Camden, Arkansas is now poised to become a critical part of the nation’s aerospace infrastructure.
If you thought that the nation’s newest state-of-the-art production facility for large Solid Rocket Motors was likely to be built in California or Florida, guess again. It will be in Camden, Arkansas.
Aerojet Rocketdyne is a modest contributor to my think tank.