For the past few years the national security discussion rightly looked beyond our atmosphere to the next battleground. The latest threat assessment by the U.S. Department of Defense should dispel any myth that there is no space race. There is, and the U.S. is far behind.
The proliferation of laser and cyber weapons as well as counter-space technology by our adversaries is deeply troubling. Fortunately, we are on the precipice of action to further U.S. space interests, unless that effort gets bogged down by personal agendas.
As a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee for more than a decade, I received countless briefings from military and intelligence officials solely focused on the upcoming international struggle for space. China and Russia have long set their goals above us — literally — and new players such as India are looking to expand their reach.
In 2016, Congress agreed it was in our security interest to dedicate more preparation and resources to the mission, starting with the transportation of our space-bound cargo. We instructed the DoD to establish a plan to transition from our current reliance on Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines to U.S.-made launch vehicles by 2022. Several U.S. companies accepted the challenge to design and develop the next-generation rocket. The Air Force, which oversees this critical mission, is on schedule to meet this bipartisan congressional mandate.
Proven reliability and capability to meet all national security requirements, including both vertical and horizontal launch integration, was the basis for the Air Force’s Phase 1 decision last October to award partial funding to three public-private partnerships. The selected partners — Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance — also ponied up significant dollars of their own in development of reusable rockets and conducting of prototype flights. Ultimately, two launch providers will be selected and awarded multiyear contracts by the end of the year.
As Phase 2 progresses, we are seeing companies who have fallen short of the Air Force’s established parameters exert political pressure. Recently, they have even attempted to use the House-passed fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to move the goal posts and force two drastic changes. Currently designed as five-year contracts with an unspecified number of flights, an effort is underway to reopen the competition after the 29th launch. The argument peddled is that waiting until 2024 for the next open-bid process would discourage other U.S. companies from participating and reduce competition. However, with the renewed focus of space exploration by the Trump administration and increasing interest for commercial space operations, this argument doesn’t lift off.
The second change is even more incredulous. A provision orders the Air Force to pony up a $500 million consolation prize for a company selected in Phase 2 that was not an awardee in Phase 1. Let me repeat so there is no misunderstanding: It would mandate a half a billion dollars — that the Air Force cannot spare — to be rewarded to the previously rejected proposal. Washington is great at making losers into winners at the taxpayer’s expense.
Jockeying for a slice of the federal pie is nothing new, but when national security is negatively impacted it is particularly offensive. As reported by the Defense Intelligence Agency, China and Russia continue to rapidly grow their capabilities while the U.S. space programs remain in limbo. They have various multi-use launch vehicle designs under development with the goal of dual commercial and military payloads capable of supporting manned missions.
Russia has its eyes toward Mars, and China has already successfully landed on the far side of the moon. The threat of a militarized space is quickly approaching reality, yet the U.S. cannot adequately respond if constantly delayed by unnecessarily re-competing contracts to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
There is broad bipartisan agreement the U.S. is behind in the space race and that we cannot afford further delays. The Air Force vigorously supports and is wholly prepared to execute their established plan, development of viable U.S.-made alternatives is on schedule and, most importantly, the foreign threat has exponentially grown, underscoring the need to move forward now. Extraneous debate or requirements will only hinder U.S. engagement in space. Put simply: The parochial interests of a few must not take precedent over the vested national security interests of the country.
In addition to serving on the House Armed Services Committee, former Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., was a senior member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He served 12 terms before retiring in January 2019. He is the CEO of LoBo Strategies LLC and currently an adviser to United Launch Alliance.