Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., hopes to see more substantive markup discussions at the subcommittee level. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — The US House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee held a brief hearing on its budget markup today, and largely kicked the can on major decisions to the larger committee markup in the future.
The markup directs the Air Force to “continue the current block buy contract for such programs,” but that doesn’t mean it is all bad news for upstart firms like SpaceX, which is hoping to break the monopoly on launch held by the United Launch Alliance (ULA). The subcommittee also directs the Air Force to continue to pursue certification for new entrants.
In addition, the markup contains language requiring the Air Force to submit detailed justifications for any future changes to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle acquisition plan that deviate from the fiscal 2015 budget request.
Notably, the committee directs the Pentagon to develop a “next-generation liquid rocket engine that is made in the United States, meets the requirements of the national security space community, is developed by not later than 2019, is developed using full and open competition, and is available for purchase by all space launch providers of the United States.”
That is a clear reference to the ongoing issue of the Russian-built RD-180 engine used in ULA’s Atlas V launch vehicle. Given the crisis in the Ukraine and ongoing sanctions against Russia by the US and allies, members of Congress and Pentagon officials have acknowledged that relying on Russia for a key military launch part may not be the best path forward.
Just how the development of a new liquid rocket engine could be achieved by 2019, and what the Pentagon would need to forgo in order to afford it, is an open question. The markup allocated $220 million for the program, a relatively small figure for such a massive development. For comparison, the Air Force hopes to spend $1 billion on a new engine program
That represents a concern for the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee.
“I’m a little worried that we don’t know where our [additional] money is coming from,” Cooper said during the markup hearing. “I’m even more worried we don’t seem to care where a whole lot of it’s coming from. But it will have to come out of some part of the $513 billion HASC-DoD budget.”
One area in which the committee hopes to find savings is the use of commercial satellite communications technology. Members of that industry have been pushing for some time to take a closer look at how the Pentagon purchases commercial satcom. The markup requests a briefing by the Pentagon’s chief information officer no later than Oct. 15.
In non-space areas, the markup asks the Missile Defense Agency to focus on alternative directed energy missile defense technologies, with a report on options due to Congress no later than January. “These are the long-term solutions we need,” Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said.
The markup hearing itself was perhaps the definition of kabuki-theater governance — a roughly 10-minute affair mostly taken up by prewritten speeches from Cooper and Rogers, the latter of whom kept things moving, holding a brief, unanimous, voice vote to proceed before gaveling the meeting to a close.
A small deviation came from Cooper, who was critical of the entire markup process for the subcommittee.
“Next year perhaps we can stop the practice of really having no substantive discussion at the subcommittee mark level,” he said. “We kick all our problems upstairs to the full committee and that makes that process a horrendous one day ordeal, with oftentimes very little expertise.
“Members of the subcommittee have worked very hard to understand a lot of the issues. So many of our briefings are secret that I think we can do a lot better in this vitally important area if we reserved more of the real decision-making for this level and then we presented the HASC with more of a completed consensus product, instead of the usual amendment-fest,” he said.
The full markup can be read here. ■