WASHINGTON — The Air Force today will open up a competition to launch the next GPS III satellite, hoping that both SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) will bid on the contract.

Deborah Lee James, Air Force secretary, told Defense News that it is her hope that ULA will indeed place a bid this time around, after the company declined to take part in the last GPS III launch contract bidding.

"We do not ultimately have the power to force anybody to compete, but we put it out in a competitive manner," the secretary said. "It is certainly my hope that ULA will compete. It's a business decision on the part of ULA so I cannot guarantee it. It is my hope and expectation that they will."

Last October, the Air Force asked for bids to launch GPS III in what was billed as the first true competition for military space launch since the Elon Musk-backed SpaceX was certified by the Air Force in 2015.

Driving competition into the military space-launch sector has been key to the Air Force's strategy to bring costs down for getting vital assets into orbit, and there was excitement around the fact that the contract would signal the arrival of true competition in that area.

However, ULA declined to offer a bid on that last launch, with a company spokeswoman saying that ongoing congressional efforts to limit the number of Russian-made RD-180 engines ULA uses in its Atlas V configuration meant the company could not participate. The company also cited several issues with how the contract was written, including concerns over accounting requirements.

Pulling out and not competing with SpaceX for that launch was seen on the Hill as a way to put pressure on Congress to change its language, leading Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to chastise ULA for seeking to "manufacture a crisis."

In order to avoid a repeat, this time the Air Force issued a draft request for proposals to both companies in order to gather input. That way, neither SpaceX nor ULA can claim the language is truly tilted against them, and both companies would be willing to participate, the service's thinking goes.

Because of that draft RFP, James said it is her "hope and expectation" that both companies will compete, although she noted that the Air Force cannot make industry bid for such contracts if they decide to sit it out.

"There were industry comments that came back. There were some changes made, as there normally are, when we put out a draft and ask for industry input, we usually make some sort of tweaks," James said, adding that she hasn't been briefed on what all those tweaks were. She also noted that Congress appears willing to give more leeway on the use of the RD-180, which should create more options for ULA going forward.

"So I do not know for certain they will compete. I certainly hope they will," James said of ULA. "This is a competitive environment and we're looking for competition. That's the point."

Proposals to the final RFP are due back to the Air Force within 45 days, with a contract award projected for first quarter of fiscal year 2017.

More broadly, James discussed the service's space strategy as one that tries to balance "between our various needs: mission success, operational needs [and] lowering launch costs." Reintroducing competition is a key part of the latter goal, she added.

She noted there has been "lots of change" in how the Air Force, and the Pentagon writ large, views space over the last two-and-a-half years, as more countries are gaining access to orbit.

"We have literally shifted billions of dollars in the last couple of years, as you look at the [budgets] and the five-year defense plans, to address the fact we're in a contested and congested environment in space," James said. "Perhaps most importantly as well we're shifting our own culture, we're shifting our own thinking about space now as we think about other domains."

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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