Dana Bonander, executive vice president of Inter-Mountain Pipe & Threading Co., is no stranger to the ups and downs of Wyoming’s oil and gas industry.
During the 2015 downturn, in fact, the company lost almost $1 million because it didn’t want to pink slip all its employees.
“You don’t want to lose good employees,” Bonander told Cowboy State Daily. “We put a lot of money into training those employees, and we have a relationship.”
Over a 40-year period, Bonander said Inter-Mountain has seen five to six downturns. He knows the next downturn is not a matter of if, but when.
That roller coaster ride is what brought Bonander to the Aerospace & Defense Industry Conference at the M Building in Casper this week. He’s wants to diversify the work his company does so when downturns inevitably hit there are other avenues to keep his employees rolling.
The federal government has billions of dollars worth of projects — some of them, like the Sentinel modernization of the Minutemen III near Cheyenne — already coming the Cowboy State’s way. The new nuclear missiles for FE Warren Air Force Base will be a $2.6 billion project for construction alone, but that’s just the tip of the money spear. Billions more are up for grabs in the same sector with projects for NASA and the newly created U.S. Space Force coming online.
Meanwhile, the federal government is mandated to provide 23% of the dollar value of all government contracts to small businesses by the 1997 Small Business Reauthorization Act. But companies like Bonander’s need help with the nuts and bolts of navigating what Bonander referred to as a “rat’s maze” of rules and regulations.
That’s the whole idea behind the Casper Aeronautics and Defense Industry Conference, where just over 100 Wyoming small businesses and small business owners have gathered for a sneak peek into the billion-dollar federal smorgasbord of future work opportunities for big players like NASA, Northrup Grumman and the Space Force.
They also heard about grants and programs the SBA and Wyoming Business Council can offer to help them thread the needle and bring some diversification to the Cowboy State’s business sector.
A Multi-Billion Economic Engine
NASA, for one, is planning to boldly go further than mankind has ever gone before in space.
“Today, President Biden has released his fiscal year 2024 budget, and I can report that the Biden administration has requested $27.2 billion for NASA,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told participants at the Aerospace Conference. “That’s a 7.1% increase compared to last year’s 2023 historic budget.”
That budget includes money for continued crewed missions to the International Space Station, Nelson said, which is helping build out capabilities to advance space missions and improve quality of life at home. It also includes money for next-generation satellites that will explore the solar system.
NASA has already hired one Wyoming company to help. L & H Industrial in Gillette was tapped to upgrade NASA’s crawler transporter so it could carry loads exceeding 21 million pounds.
CEO Mike Wandler told Cowboy State Daily he’s happy with the level of activity L & H has in the federal contracting space. But he sees plenty of room for other Wyoming businesses to get in on the act.
That’s one of the reasons his company helped start the Aerospace and Defense Industry Conference, to help create new opportunities to strengthen businesses across the Cowboy State.
Space Force 101
Speaking of new opportunities, included among the heavy hitters at the Casper conference was Col. Gina Peterson with the recently created U.S. Space Force — the first new branch of the armed services in more than 70 years.
Creation of the Space Force was a bipartisan act of Congress. America and its allies have a vast network of assets in space connecting people in every corner of the globe. Satellites underpin so much of society now and have become an essential part of working systems in America.
Satellites monitor weather patterns, carry television broadcasts, enable international commerce and synchronize cellphone networks. They’re also critical to the effectiveness of many military operations.
But these assets are no longer necessarily safe now that other ambitious countries — strategic competitors as the military calls them — are also building out their space capabilities.
“But it’s about more than that,” Peterson added. “It’s about having that capability available when we need it. We need to learn how to be resilient.”
Figuring out the exact form that resilience will take is going to be a long-term process, one with more than a few moving targets along the way. But one possibility could be smaller, cheaper, faster satellites distributed in a multi-orbital network. That network could also include satellites with innovative sensors to provide a more robust early warning system.
“There’s a lot of innovation going into combat power, and what that means, and how we project it through and from space,” Robinson said.
But it’s not just this modernization that must take place, she added. Certain processes have to be sped up as well, and an experienced, talented workforce needs to be developed around the mission.
These are ongoing discussions, but Space Force has a website similar to one NASA offers that will allow people and companies with ideas to share and interact with the agency, as well as track upcoming forums where more insight will be given into what the Space Force needs.
Another of the very large projects that’s already coming to Wyoming are new nuclear missiles, the Sentinels, which are going to replace the Minutemen III.
Col. Jared Nelson, commander of the 90th Operations Group, said the modernization of the Minutemen III will attract upward of 900 jobs, 665 of which will be direct. Construction of the project is expected to bring $2.6 billion to the Cheyenne economy.
“We expect roughly just shy of a 2% GDP increase today,” he said. “And $50 million of income. So, you can see, if you’re looking to either get a job, find a job or sell a product, there’s an opportunity here with the Sentinel modernization that we haven’t seen in this area for probably 50 years. Even Peacekeeper wasn’t as big as what we’re talking about.”
Small businesses that want to become a vendor to the federal government during the next 10 to 12 years should start their search at the website, sam.gov, Nelson said.
FE Warren oversees 150 Minutemen III missiles, and each one will be modernized.
“We refer to each of those as a military construction project,” Nelson said. “It’s very rare to have more than one or two or maybe three military construction projects. We’re about to embark in the next 15 years to do almost 200 military projects just at FE Warren.”
The modernization project will also be connecting all of the missiles together, something that’s never been done before.
Nelson added that the United States no longer tries to classify the location of the missiles in this era of spy satellites and balloons.
“We can’t hide it anymore,” he said. “So, what we do is we harden it, and we make it difficult to get into.”
Renee Jean can be reached at: Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com