NRO space satellite launch

Given the critical nature of National Security Space Launch, winners of the competition to replace the Atlas V and its Russian-made RD-180s engines should have the flexibility to adapt to unforeseen events, the self-knowledge and willingness to work closely with the Air Force, and a record of excellent performance to avoid wasteful contract award protests. More importantly, not adhering to these criteria could increase NSS mission risk and threaten America’s future standing as an unmatched leader in space.

Capabilities used to launch U.S. satellites needed for national security missions has long been a controversial topic. To cite one issue, Congress and other national leaders are not comfortable with the Air Force’s continued use of Russian-made RD-180 engines to launch military communications, missile warning, and spy satellites into orbit. 

Later this year, the Department of the Air Force will announce winners of its competition to come up with alternative to systems that use the Russian engines, designed to conduct national security space (NSS) launches. Two of the four companies in the competition—Blue Origin, SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and United Launch Alliance—will be picked to provide five years of launches. Since there are no backups to NSS satellites, the loss of one due to an unforeseen technological failure or other reason during would create a critical capability gap that cannot be quickly filled.

As noted by Marty Faga, retired assistant secretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, there is a stark difference between launching commercial satellites and NSS satellites. Commercial satellites can be insured and replaced; NSS satellites cannot. The success of the Air Force’s competition, formally known as the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement (LSP), will be critical to avoiding gaps in national security space capabilities that could have a major impact on the U.S. military’s operations. 

Given the importance of these launches, winners of the Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement competition should be selected based on their ability to meet the following criteria. Using these criteria to select best-of-breed launch providers would help avoid award protests that are wasteful and could lead to delays in fielding capabilities needed by America’s warfighters. 

Winners must be able to provide deep insights into their launch systems

The Air Force’s strategy for assured access hinges on the ability to contract with multiple providers that each have separate launch systems capable of performing all national security space missions. In the event that one system is grounded, another will continue to support our warfighters and allies in deterrence and protecting our security. To maintain an additional layer of mission assurance, NSS launch winners must be capable of working closely with the Air Force to develop and sustain a mutual understanding of the readiness, reliability and risks of their launch systems. This continuous insight into the system design and operations, as opposed to a commodity purchase model of a purely commercial marketplace, will help the government to “self-insure” uninsurable missions.  

Avoid delays that would affect the transition from Russian RD-180s.

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act required the Air Force to stop using Russian RD-180 engines, which power the workhorse Atlas V rocket, by the end of 2022. Eliminating dependence on Russian systems is an important national security priority. Any delays in the NSSL procurement process or in contractors’ program execution will put this congressionally-mandated objective in jeopardy.

Launch support must be affordable.

The four competitors have invested more than one billion private sector dollars on technologies and systems to meet strenuous NSSL requirements that exceed the ones typical of commercial launches. Although a competition with four competitors is a success story in and of itself, winners should be chosen from offerors who have the best potential to generate stable and predictable costs for the U.S. national security space enterprise.

Winners must have a proven ability to adapt to unforeseen launch manifest changes.

Since sudden changes to launch manifests due to mishaps, payload delays, sudden space threats, supply chain disruption, or natural disasters are inevitable, the Air Force will need launch providers that can best absorb and adapt to these schedule shocks. This will require providers to have deep expertise in everything from the shelf lives of their launch vehicle components to exquisite knowledge of payload-specific mission integration requirements. Best-of-breed launch providers should also be able to quickly adapt their supply chains, production flows, and ground support operations to accommodate unforeseen manifest changes. Finally, providers should have a track record of transparency and collaboration with the Air Force and be able to rapidly investigate mishaps that occur as part of a return to flight strategy without regard to potential public relations fallout.

It appears as if the Air Force has successfully energized the domestic U.S. launch industry and set the stage for a healthy NSSL Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement competition. Now it must pick the winners.

Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel and former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for forces transformation and resources, is director for future concepts and technology assessments at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.  

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