WASHINGTON — William LaPlante will go down in history as the man who shepherded the Long Range Strike-Bomber through the Pentagon's unwieldy acquisition process.

But in his final words to the media as the US Air Force's acquisition chief, LaPlante voiced frustration that other critical programs face tough roads ahead.

LaPlante leaves his post with at least one nagging concern: ensuring access to space. Congress has recently pushed to move away from reliance on Russian-made engines to launch satellites into space, but LaPlante doubts the US can quickly transition entirely to a homegrown engine while simultaneously ensuring competition and maintaining access to space.

"I think the space launch situation is serious for the country." LaPlante told reporters during a Nov. 24 media roundtable at the Pentagon. "You can get competition, you can get two independent ways to get into space or you can get off the Russian engines — I don't see how you do all three in the next four years."

LaPlante's remarks come on the heels of a controversial showdown between the Pentagon and United Launch Alliance, which until this year was the sole provider of military launch. ULA recently pulled out of the Air Force's GPS III competition, citing insufficient stores of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine after Congress banned the use of the power plant for military satellite launches after 2019.

The Air Force announced LaPlante's unexpected departure Nov. 18. The outgoing acquisition chief had hoped to leave his post to re-join the MITRE Corporation, a non-profit organization that operates federally funded research and development centers, earlier this summer, . B but he was committed to ensuring the drawn-out Long Range Strike-Bomber source selection process was done right, he told reporters.

"I really felt it was important to get LRS-B done," LaPlante said. "I'm not going to leave until we get this thing done right, and done right also meant how we communicated it when we made the announcement down in the press room."

The Pentagon awarded the long-awaited LRS-B contract to Northrop Grumman on Oct. 27. Although LaPlante expressed optimism the program is on the right track, the saga will continue for at least a few more months: the losing bidder, a joint Boeing and Lockheed Martin team, protested the award to the Government Accountability Office Nov. 6.

Still, "I feel good about LRS-B, I'm confident, " LaPlante said. "We're just anxious to get on with that program when the protest period is over."

Boeing's KC-46 Tanker, another of the Air Force's top priorities, is also going well after a rough start, LaPlante said. First flight was repeatedly delayed before Boeing successfully completed the milestone Sept. 25.

But now, KC-46 is rapidly catching up on test points, LaPlante said. The next challenge will be to certify the plane’s air refueling capabilities, the boom and drogue, he said.

"Boeing and the flight team are actually doing a good job right now, they are getting more flight hours in a week than we expected, which is what you would hope," LaPlante said. "I feel pretty good about KC-46."

LaPlante said he is also confident the Air Force’s F-35 joint strike fighter variant will reach initial operating capability on schedule next summer, he said. The next challenge will be ramping up production of the Lockheed Martin plane from about 150 this year to 1,000 in about four years, he stressed.

On another Air Force priority, LaPlante was less upbeat. While the service is making progress on an effort to recapitalize its aging fleet of Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems, LaPlante said the Pentagon may scrap the existing program and go back to the drawing board.

"There's still debate in the building, outside the Air Force, on whether you do this or you do other things," LaPlante said, explaining that some factions want to trade JSTARS for unmanned platforms like Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk remotely piloted surveillance aircraft.

Yet another internal faction is questioning whether JSTARS is still relevant in the modern battlefield, he said.

"There's another faction that looks at it and says, 'How does JSTARS fit into an [anti-access/area-denial] environment?'" LaPlante said. "Well, how does anything fit into an A2/AD environment? But those debates keep happening in a tough budget environment."

LaPlante also noted the next-generation GPS III Operational Control System (OCX) is "going bad," but declined to elaborate.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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