There are myriad important national security issues at play as conferees work to finalize the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. As we consider the future of America’s security, one of the most critical issues involves the future of national security space launch, or NSSL, and our long-term assured access to space.
While the Space Force, one of President Donald Trump’s marquee defense initiatives, has become a lightning rod within the defense community and in Congress, decisions made about the lesser-known Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement will be vital to ensuring America’s success in the new space race.
Technological advancements by China and Russia over the past decade have eroded the United States’ strategic advantage in space. The Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Innovation Unit have cautioned that only by building a robust industrial base can the United States outpace its adversaries in the development of new space capabilities.
Part of the effort to ensure the United States maintains its competitive edge is to make certain the defense space acquisition system is as swift and agile as possible. The Department of Defense has taken some action in this direction, but more is left to be done, particularly to keep up with our near-peer competitors in space. This will require more fully embracing the innovations taking place in the commercial space launch market and promoting competition among providers to deliver the best capabilities at the lowest cost.
We have seen firsthand the benefits of competition and innovation in national security space launch. When I served in the Air Force in 2012, we began a process of certifying companies to provide national security launch services, after years when the Defense Department’s sole NSSL provider was United Launch Alliance. That process had numerous goals; primary among them were ensuring any new company could safely and consistently deliver national security satellites to orbit and that they could do so in a cost-efficient way.
ULA was born of a collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin because of the nature of the competitive market in the 2000s. Despite a very good mission success track record, by 2012 the cost of ULA launches “had increased 58 percent above the baseline estimates in 2004 and 2007.” Five years later, ULA cut the price of its Atlas 5 rocket by more than a third as it faced competition from new rival SpaceX.
Embracing new launch providers could allow the Air Force to further drive down costs and acquire even better capabilities. Despite this compelling business case, the Air Force plans to award exclusive five- to eight-year launch contracts to just two providers.
This decision ignores a growing commercial market that can clearly support multiple providers. In fact, the Center for Space Policy and Strategy forecast a launch availability shortfall over the next 10 years. And, more importantly, it is now an issue for this year’s NDAA as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith warns that the Air Force’s current course “risks undermining [its] goal of maximizing and sustaining fair and open competition.”
There are important benefits to maintaining multiple launch providers if they can meet national security launch standards. Competition drives down price. In a crisis, the government has multiple providers who can help ensure access to space. The government can benefit from what is happening in the commercial launch market.
The House-passed NDAA seeks to do this by requiring the Air Force to compete contracts in the Phase 2 LSP for any launches beyond the first 29. The legislation would also make available up to $500 million to certain providers to ensure they can satisfy national security infrastructure and certification requirements.
But it is not enough to simply recognize that competition and innovation in national security space launch is a good thing. The true test is constructing an acquisition process streamlined and agile enough to defeat China’s and Russia’s ambitions. Reforming Pentagon acquisition programs is a perennial challenge for every administration, and space launch is no exception.
That is why the current debate over the importance of the space domain in our national security strategy, policy, structure and budget is an important one. The United States and our competitors are increasingly developing doctrine and capabilities while devoting more resources to space. It is critical that the Department of Defense and Congress ensure that our resources are spent as efficiently as possible, including on NSSL.
The Department of Defense and the Air Force, working with Congress, have an opportunity to improve their blueprint for assured access to space by ensuring additional competition and embracing more of the commercial launch market. With these new providers and by maintaining our high standards, this is a race America can win.
Erin C. Conaton is a former undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and staff director of the House Armed Services Committee.