Commentary | Space launch is a national security priority

by and
A former U.S. under secretary of defense and retired Air Force vice chief discuss the Air Force's "assured access" policy in the age of SpaceX and Blue Origin.


The U.S. depends upon national security space (NSS) systems to deter aggression, and when necessary to fight and win the nation’s wars. These space systems provide timely warning of missile launches, precision navigation and timing, secure and survivable communications, critical intelligence on our adversaries and myriad other services. Over the years, our dependency on these capabilities has grown dramatically as space has become a clear and unique U.S. force multiplier, first demonstrated clearly in the 1991 Iraq War.

As a result of this critical dependence, “assured access” to space has been an important policy tenet for several decades. The policy means that the U.S. must be able to launch payloads, whenever needed, into a variety of orbits, and that we must have at least two different launch vehicles or family of vehicles to ensure that we can mitigate the impacts of a launch failure.

Today’s “assured access” policy is a direct result of our response to past launch failures. NSS launch failures in 1985 and 1986 resulted in the loss of extremely important payloads. These two launch failures bookended the Challenger failure in January 1986, with the tragic loss of our astronauts and profound impacts to our manned space program. The net effect of these three failures was an extended period (30 months) wherein the U.S. could not launch NSS and most NASA payloads. Because of the accidents and the associated launch standdown, there was a sense of “never again can the country be put in this position.” Thus, the “assured access” policy was adopted in the late ‘80s and has been reaffirmed by all subsequent administrations.

At the dawn of the Space Age, our large launch vehicles were derived from ICBMs: Titan, Atlas, and Delta. When we recognized that time was running out on this aging legacy, the U.S. Air Force initiated the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program in 1995.  The stated purpose of this program was to improve the reliability of heritage systems and reduce the cost of space launch. Regarding the first objective, the EELV has far exceeded reliability goals. The program has had over 100 launches without a failure—a success rate that was heretofore inconceivable for large launch systems. A key enabler of this reliability was the implementation of certification and quality-control processes for mission assurance which emphasized comprehensive review and insight on parts, components, and procedures to ensure launch readiness and high reliability. As for the second objective, the cost of the EELV is significantly lower than past systems but still too expensive.

But we are now at a critical juncture. The current Atlas 5 EELV relies on the highly capable and relatively inexpensive Russian RD-180 engine. However, due to the current strained relationship with Russia, the long-term use of this engine has been precluded by Congress. The Delta launch family, including a variant that is the only current launch system for our largest NSS payloads, is very expensive. So our current systems are too costly; are becoming obsolete; and are restricted by congressionally mandated prohibitions against the use of Russian engines.

Fortunately, we see innovation being offered by new approaches from current providers, and by new entrants (some with commercial offerings) into the launch industry. These innovative approaches offer the potential to fundamentally alter the marketplace. They include Space X’s Falcon family, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan and Orbital ATK’s Next Generation Launch System.

To address our challenges and to exploit innovative approaches that can enable our ability to provide the launch services that we need at a cost we can afford, the U.S. Air Force’s proposed launch strategy is built upon four core elements:

1. Performance & Reliability: We must maintain our track record of reliability by applying the certification and quality control processes for mission assurance that have delivered the launch readiness and high reliability that we need. Our NSS performance requirements and needs for reliability often exceed that for commercial launches (just like NASA’s special needs for man-rated launches) because we risk losing complex national security payloads with replacement costs that far exceed launch costs, and risk the consequences of critical capability gaps until replacement payloads are built and launched. The Air Force must be willing to tailor existing certification and control processes when they can accept best commercial practices. And launch providers must be willing to tailor commercial practices to meet NSS needs. The U.S. has established a very successful precedent for this approach called CRAF (Civil Reserve Airlift Fleet — established in the 1950s and continuing today) that allows us to exploit economies of scale by certifying and leasing commercial airliners in time of national emergencies to supplement our military air fleet and meet critical needs. The Air Force should use a similar approach in Launch Services Agreements (LSA) for commercial space launch suppliers in which the providers are compensated for the cost of certification and tailoring of their commercial best practices to meet NSS needs.

2. Robustness & Resilience: To respond to our nation’s significant dependence on space and the growing offensive threat to our critical space systems, we need enhanced launch robustness and resilience to enable launch of payloads, whenever needed, into their required orbits. The emergence of a small launch market and new small launch capabilities can provide the nation with new opportunities to enhance resilience and robustness.

3. Innovation: To overcome obsolescence and meet future needs, the Air Force needs to incent innovation and exploit commercial developments, making government investment when required to address NSS needs.

4. Competition: Finally, the Air Force should leverage the competitive environment to maintain at least two viable launch service providers who can provide the enhanced capabilities and reliability necessary to meet future needs and control costs.

So, why do we need to act now? The Air Force has proposed a carefully considered and constructed LSA approach that addresses these four needs. But this is a fragile environment with conflicting objectives and the imposition of serious limitations and constraints. We are now at an inflection point to bring the key stakeholders together using these well-structured agreements. If we don’t act now, the result will be increasingly fragmented efforts which will increase cost and risk, and limit the innovation needed to provide the future capabilities and costs that are so critical to our national needs.

Paul Kaminski, a U.S. former under secretary of defense, received the National Medal of Technology for his contributions to national security in both public and private sectors. Gen. Thomas Moorman, a former Air Force vice chief and Space Command commander, has over 40 years of experience in the research, development and operation of military and intelligence space system. Both serve on the Air Force’s Space and Missile Center, Launch Enterprise Independent Advisory Group.