Congress created the Space Force four years ago in recognition of the growing importance of space — not only as a warfighting domain but as an enabler of our economic power and influence. Since its formation, the U.S. Space Force — and Air Force Space Command before it — has worked hard to counteract the growing threats in space, especially in this era of great power competition from Russia and China.
Assured access to space — through having multiple ways to achieve different orbits and lift different types of satellites — is a key component of our strategy, one that occupied a great deal of my time when I served as secretary of the Air Force. We were searching for the right balance between speed, innovation, mission assurance, competition and cost. That’s no easy deal.
Most importantly, we could not afford to lose a billion-dollar satellite dedicated to surveillance, missile warning or other missions critical to the national security of the U.S.
Before Congress created the Space Force, in 2015, I — acting as the secretary of the Air Force — opened up (through a rigorous certification process) the National Security Space Launch business to an additional vendor (for a total of two), both of whom were able to convince our experts that they could reliably lift our most precious space assets into orbit safely. This move saved the government $7 billion over time and has worked well to ensure assured access to space.
Unfortunately, however, the Space Force is now considering opening our most difficult and precious category of launch to a third vendor. Although I’m all for competition — and I applaud the Space Force for opening the more risk-tolerant launch categories to many new space firms — I’m flatly against lowering the standards of the certification process for high-risk launches. And I’m also against allowing a vendor who has not yet successfully launched to compete on the basis of a paper proposal alone. Such a move would endanger the very assured access to space for our most critical and expensive satellites.
The Space Force specified that adding an additional provider to service the second lane’s missions could increase costs by over $5 billion while decreasing the incentive for contractors to provide price-competitive bids. These realities have not changed over the last six months, so neither should Space System Command’s procurement strategy.
In advance of a May hearing on the fiscal 2024 U.S. Space Force budget request, the U.S. Air Force’s assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration, Frank Calvelli, and the Space Force’s vice chief of space operations, Gen. David Thompson, stated that using “two fully certified launch service providers in one lane while allowing emerging providers to compete, when ready, for the [Department of Defense’s] more risk-tolerant missions in another lane” will “provide Assured Access to Space” and protect “capacity for the DoD’s less risk-tolerant missions.”
U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall agreed in congressional testimony, remarking that the Air Force’s NSSL strategy “allows us to bring new entrants in early, fluidly, but it also gives us assured access for the higher risk missions.”
While America is still the world’s leading space superpower, China and Russia are now years ahead of the rest of the globe in developing the technology needed to weaken, destroy or interfere with our space systems. We can’t let that happen, nor should we rush to allow an unproven third entrant attempt to launch our most exquisite space assets.
With the Air Force, Air Force Research Laboratory, Defense Innovation Unit and the Space Force’s 2022 State of the Space Industrial Base report stating that China’s space trajectory is more positive than the U.S., now is not the time to lower standards and take unnecessary risks with America’s premier space launch program. Rather, now is the time to prioritize reliability where it counts the most.
Deborah Lee James is a former secretary of the U.S. Air Force. She serves as chair of the Defense Business Board and is affiliated with several organizations and businesses.