Air Force “Strongly Opposes” EELV Restrictions

The Air Force objects to language in HASC's version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which restricts the funding for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. Here, an NROL-37 launches aboard a Delta IV Heavy from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., June 11, 2016. Air Force photo.

The Air Force on Tuesday said it “strongly objects” to language in the House Armed Services Committee’s chairman’s markup of the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act that would restrict the way the service invests money in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. On Wednesday, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the HASC strategic forces subcommittee, pushed back on the service’s criticisms and clarified that the legislation is intended to limit the EELV program’s investments to a more narrow focus on rocket engine development.

In a memo obtained by Air Force Magazine, the Air Force argues that HASC’s proposal to limit nearly $300 million of EELV spending to investments only in new engines “handicaps the Air Force’s eyes and ears in space.” The memo says the bill’s restriction, in section 1615, would force the service to end its investment in new launch systems and move forward with only the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV and SpaceX Falcon 9 launch systems.

Such a move “would eliminate competition by driving a dual sole-source scenario that results in the highest cost for [National Security Space] launch,” the memo says. If the Air Force can only develop new engines, and not new launch systems, it will be forced to rely on the Delta IV for heavier payloads, which the Falcon 9 cannot carry. The lack of competition from newly developed launch systems would also mean that “Falcon launch prices would be significantly higher than those achieved by today’s competitive awards,” according to the service.

At the Wednesday markup session, Rogers clarified the motivation behind the legislation and indirectly pushed back on the Air Force’s criticisms. He said the bill focuses investment dollars on engine development in order to assure “continued focus on the development of a new American-made rocket engine to replace the [Russian-made] RD-180.” The bill seeks to preserve competition for the RD-180 replacement, Rogers said, but it intentionally avoids funding a competition for new launch vehicles.

“We simply don’t have enough money in the defense budget to build new launch vehicles for as many as three commercial companies,” Rogers said. As such, the committee chose to put the money it does have toward a new engine that can ensure that “we do not lose existing, highly capable launch vehicles like the Delta IV Heavy.”