WASHINGTON — A group of seven U.S. senators has pushed back against an Air Force plan to halve the number of launches to be competitively awarded under the service’s primary satellite launching program from 2015 through 2017.

In an April 1 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the senators said the decision to shrink the number of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle missions eligible for competition to seven from 14 should be “immediately reviewed.”

“We strongly believe this proposal undermines the Air Force’s previous plan to begin to compete launches in 2015 and urge you to take all necessary steps to ensure the Air Force fulfills its commitment to provide meaningful competition opportunities this year for award in fiscal year 2015 and beyond,” the letter said. 

The letter was signed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). Feinstein chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has legislative jurisdiction over the nation’s spy satellite programs. 

Lawmakers have long expressed frustration about the high costs of the EELV program and many view competition as the answer. As EELV prime contractor, United Launch Alliance currently has a virtual monopoly on national security launches, but companies like Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are vying for a piece of the action.

Tom Mentzer, a spokesman for Feinstein’s office, said the senator believes any launch that a new entrant is capable of performing “should be competed as soon as possible.”

Echoing sentiments expressed by SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, lawmakers have questioned ULA’s reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine to power the main stage of its Atlas 5 rocket, one of two workhorses in that company’s fleet. These concerns have heightened in the wake of Russia’s occupation and subsequent annexation of Crimea.

The Defense Department and the Air Force are both examining the military’s reliance on the RD-180 and the feasibility of developing a U.S.-built alternative.

In 2012, the Air Force announced it was negotiating the purchase, on a sole-source basis, of up to 36 Atlas and Delta rocket cores over five years from ULA. At the same time, however, the service said it planned to competitively award an additional 14 missions to give companies like Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX a crack at the market.

In March, however, Air Force leaders said only seven such missions would be competitively awarded from 2015 to 2017, half as many as originally expected. Five of those seven deferred launches are expected to be available for bid after 2017. 

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told a House panel April 3 that an eighth launch may become available for competition in the relative near term.

The reduction in the number of competitively awarded Air Force launches is driven in part by a planned slowdown in procurement of GPS 3 navigation satellites beginning in 2015, primarily because earlier-generation GPS satellites are lasting longer in orbit than expected. Delays in the GPS 3 program also are a factor.

Musk has said the deferred EELV missions “should be proportionally divided” between ULA and the new entrants.

“The lack of competition in the EELV program comes at a time when the cost of national security space launches has greatly increased,” the senators said in their letter. “The EELV program has incurred massive cost overruns since the United Launch Alliance was formed in 2006.” 

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said EELV program cost projections have doubled, to $70 billion, over 150 missions.  Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition czar, produced a similar estimate in a 2012 report that fueled momentum for bringing competition to the program.

In a statement, Denver-based ULA said it has worked hard to reduce costs for years.

“ULA has consistently reduced costs since it was formed in 2006 at the direction of the federal government,” Jessica Rye, a ULA spokeswoman, said in an April 3 email. “In fact, costs are nearly 30 percent less than the systems EELV replaced, and ULA has seen year-over-year cost reductions since its inception.”

The Air Force is currently developing a business strategy and source selection plan for the initial phase of the launch competition, according to a Feb. 12 letter from Maj. Gen. Thomas Bergeson, the legislative liaison for the Air Force secretary, to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...