Today, the launch infrastructure of the United States National Security Space (NSS) -- comprised of the Department of Defense (DoD), the Services and the Intelligence Community (IC) -- is teetering on the edge of a gap in capability which, in less than five years, could mean no capacity to launch the bulk of critical national security missions for as long as ten years. 

We are close to retiring our existing fleet of launch vehicles without new ones to assure our access to space. Since 1999 we have had an unprecedented string of successful NSS launches, over 90 as of this writing, hoisting payloads from GPS satellites that provide critical position, navigation and timing capability to U.S. forces worldwide, to military communications satellites that provide high capacity global military communications for command and control of air, land and naval forces, as well as for command and control of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and drones around the world, to critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites that provide the national command authority eyes and ears in the sky.  America’s enemies operate with the certain knowledge that they have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from American reach.  And assured access to space is the key.


We have accomplished these successes and this remarkable record primarily utilizing two launch vehicles, the Atlas V and the Delta IV.   Both were designed in the 1990’s and have been operational since the end of the century.  Both are in their prime of service, yet we are abandoning them in as few as five years and have no high probability plan for their replacement. The simple fact is, we have done this to ourselves.

The Atlas V is planned for retirement as early as 2017 because the Congress has mandated that, as punishment for Russian bellicosity in the Ukraine and Crimea, the Department of Defense no longer use Russian rocket engines for the launch of national security missions.

The Delta IV is planned for retirement in 2017 because it is simply too expensive to compete in the commercial marketplace, or even to compete with new entrants to the government launch market.  Only the ‘heavy’ version of the Delta IV remains in service because this behemoth alone can lift the one or two largest and bulkiest payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Which brings us to SpaceX.  Its Falcon 9 launcher was developed by a combination of private and unencumbered government funds primarily for the commercial marketplace and resupply and human spaceflight to and from the space station. The problem is, the DoD has yet to certify the Falcon 9 ready to launch NSS payloads.

So what is the plan for NSS launches in just five years?  Seems like everyone has a different answer and none of them are sure bets. 

United Launch Alliance, the joint venture that currently offers Atlas V and Delta IV says it is going to build a new launch vehicle powered by a completely new rocket engine.  It will cost between $1.5B and $2.5B.  Problem is, no one has come forward and explained where the money will come from and the joint venture has little or no resources of its own to commit to the program.

SpaceX believes that it’s Falcon 9 and derivatives of its current design and a new ‘heavy version’ of the vehicle will fill the bill by 2018.  Problem is, not even the basic Falcon 9 has been certified as ready to launch NSS payloads and the critical new ‘heavy’ version doesn’t even exist yet.  Certification of the Falcon 9 has taken almost two years and isn’t to the finish line yet.

Congress has appropriated funds for the Air Force to develop a high performance liquid oxygen and kerosene engine that could be used on the Atlas V.  Problem is, the Air Force isn’t sure how to get this work done in time and isn’t sure enough funds are available to accomplish the goal even if it could acquire a suitable substitute.

Some hope this looming gap in the national security launch capability will cause the DoD and the Congress to release constraints on Russian engines, or spend money on a crash program to develop a new launch capability.  Problem is, Congress is skeptical that schedule relief will solve the problem and the Department of Defense doesn’t have any money earmarked for a new launch acquisition.

We have been on several important government chartered panels in the past nine months regarding NSS launch.  Each has looked at different aspects of the launch dilemma, all have confirmed the complex and risky situation we have described and sounded the warning horn to all who will listen.

The government needs to take ownership and face this problem head on.  It needs to define the end state and show commitment to a credible, achievable and affordable solution for NSS launch in the 2020s and it needs to commit the necessary resources to achieve the desired outcome.  It has been said that today’s American military is ‘space based.’  It is our duty to make sure we can support our forces in the next decade with assured access to space. 

Albrecht was executive secretary of the National Space Council where he served as President George H.W. Bush’s principal adviser on the U.S. Space Program. He was also president of Lockheed Martin’s International Launch Services company. Mitchell was director of Operations at Air Force Space Command and director of the Office of Space Launch for the  National Reconnaissance Office.