Orbital ATK poised to 'upset' SpaceX, ULA in race for Air Force contracts, Jefferies says

  • ULA and SpaceX are currently the U.S. Air Force's go-to rocket suppliers.
  • But the next round of contracts could see Orbital ATK get a foothold, according to Jefferies analysts.
  • Orbital may be in position "for what we would view as an upset," the firm wrote.

Once a monopoly, the market to launch Air Force equipment to space is getting crowded.

United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — and SpaceX are currently the Air Force's go-to rocket suppliers. But the next round of contracts could see Orbital ATK get a foothold, according to Jefferies analysts who attended the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

In July the U.S. Air Force is expected to award three suppliers with contracts for next-generation rocket designs under the Pentagon's launch services agreements program, with ULA, SpaceX, Orbital and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin as the likely competitors, Jefferies said. The military is then anticipated to make a final decision in 2020, picking two suppliers to compete for 28 missions over five years.

"An eventual down-select for the program would require unseating two well positioned competitors in ULA and SpaceX," Jefferies said. "Despite this, Orbital ATK has many aspects of the offering that position it for what we would view as an upset."

Part of this comes through "synergies" from its pending acquisition by defense giant Northrop Grumman this year for $7.8 billion, the analysts wrote. The deal with Northrop gives both companies greater reach into the growing space economy. Northrop and Orbital's portfolios combine "to offer full scale solutions across the small and large government satellite market, leverage to the commercial market and expansion into the launch services market," the firm said.

Jefferies estimated Northrop's space business makes up about a quarter of its revenues. With Orbital joining the fold, the firm sees this business growing 9 percent over the next four years.

Orbital also has a "diverse business base, across space and defense," Jefferies said, which provides "an operational advantage."

"The manufacturing and supply base would also be leveraged across the company's strategic rocket and launch vehicle business," Jefferies said.

Orbital also supplies solid rocket motors and other rocket parts for ULA. With a robust rocket-building supply chain, Orbital's newly announced OmegA rocket bulks up its existing quiver of launch vehicles, which includes the light-to-medium lift class Pegasus, Minotaur and Antares rockets.

"The company's OmegA rocket is starting at a high level of technology readiness given its leverage of current components," Jefferies said.

The number of Orbital employees working on OmegA is expected to double to 1,000 if the Air Force awards the company a design contract this year, the company said. The military has also contributed $165 million to the development of OmegA, Jefferies said, with Orbital investing around $85 million itself.

Competition with ULA and SpaceX is stiff. Both companies continue to win the Air Force's trust with massive contracts. ULA is the legacy supplier, launching Air Force missions for more than two decades. SpaceX is Elon Musk's relentless innovator — already completing eight successful missions in 2018 — known for its ability to land rockets. The company also recently completed the first flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which the Air Force is utilizing for future launches.

Blue Origin could also pull off a surprising win with its New Glenn rocket, which is currently in development. Bezos' company expects New Glenn to launch in 2020. CEO Bob Smith said last week New Glenn progress is "going very well" and noted that the rocket is built to serve any customer — civil, commercial or military.

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