National security rocket launches require stronger federal strategy
The future of the American national security space enterprise now rests on the ability of the Air Force and the intelligence community to seize upon emerging technologies. But beyond this adoption of proven and innovative systems, it is critical that the federal government ensures that we have the equitable and open competition to attain the best solution.
Unfortunately, that is not what is happening. Rather than ensure that the United States maintains the most advanced launch portfolio, it appears the Air Force remains comfortable with business as usual. This decision is not just pertinent for the next five years. In a rapidly evolving field, it will impact the American launch enterprise for the next decade and beyond.
The Air Force is now moving forward with an acquisition effort to launch important national security assets on schedule and to prevent continued use of Russian rocket engines for national security launches. The Air Force solicitation for national security launches, issued by the Space and Missile Systems Center, will govern launches throughout the next decade. This stands in stark contrast to what Air Force leadership have articulated about the need for a fast moving and commercially viable approach.
On this note, the evaluation criteria articulated by the Space and Missile Systems Center are of particular interest. Previously, the commercial viability of a rocket was an important factor for the federal government. It was not the deciding factor, but it was a factor nonetheless during the evaluation of vendor proposals. The commercial viability of a provider has to be an important consideration for the Air Force and the Pentagon.
The federal government cannot bear the full weight of development or sustainment costs, as it did throughout most of the last decade until competition was reintroduced in 2015. A robust and realistic portfolio of commercial business ensures that costs are distributed across customers instead of just the Pentagon. Indeed, the lack of commercial success in years past resulted in unsustainable cost growth for the launch program.
The commercial market continues to grow in ways unforeseeable in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab are launching payloads for commercial customers, while Blue Origin and others are securing customers for future rockets. This should be an advantage to the United States, but the current acquisition disregards commercial solutions in favor of costly federal government solutions.
Commercial viability is, at least, a fairly objective criterion. Other criteria are simply baffling. The Air Force will award the portfolio of launches to the vendors that “when combined” provide the best solution. It will split the launches 60/40 and look for the two providers that best complement one another. This is, at its core, a totally subjective evaluation criterion. How can a potential vendor propose a solution that ensures success “when combined” with another, as of yet, undetermined vendo herer?
More perplexingly, in the event that a vendor launch vehicle is not ready to fly by 2022, the provider can substitute another previously certified rocket that will not be evaluated during this proposal. How can a provider compete against one rocket, only to find that the rocket that will actually be used will not be evaluated? Most importantly, the only “backup” launch vehicle currently available will use Russian engines, subverting the very purpose of the Air Force acquisition strategy to move away from those.
Also troubling is the Air Force plan to terminate the previously awarded contracts for providers not selected during the follow on federal launch services contract known as Phase Two Launch Services Procurement. Without this critical development investment, providers are not likely to complete the unique launch infrastructure and certification processes required to fly national security payloads starting in 2022.
Taken together, the contract award criteria and launch program approach appear to stand in the face of the commercial impetus discussed by Air Force leadership. The launch competition continues a pattern that worked in the previous benign environment that no longer exists today. While the federal government certainly has unique requirements, they can be better met by encouraging competition among a robust launch industrial base.
It is time for a new approach to national security launches. Technology is reaching the point where companies should be precertified and compete for launches like task orders. Continued investment to address unique and emerging national security requirements is superior to large development programs once every one or two decades. This approach will increase competition, reduce prices, and enable the Air Force to be responsive to new innovative capabilities like small satellites and larger constellations. We cannot afford to continue the same approaches and the same models. Only our enemies will prevail from this kind of mindset. The threats are evolving. We must seize the opportunities that are there for the taking.
Joshua Huminski is the director of the National Security Space Program and the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
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