WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee wants the U.S. Air Force to reconsider plans to include a missile warning satellite in a batch of launches awarded on a sole-source basis to United Launch Alliance.

In a draft version of the 2015 defense authorization bill, the committee urged the Air Force to examine the feasibility of launching the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO-4 satellite, as well as others, on a competitively selected rocket.

SBIRS GEO-4, the fourth geostationary orbiting satellite in the missile warning constellation, previously was among 14 satellites whose launches were to be awarded on a competitive basis rather than being sole-sourced to ULA, which has had a virtual monopoly in the U.S. national security launch market since its creation in 2006.

The competition was part of the Air Force’s two-pronged strategy for reducing the cost of launches while allowing so-called new entrants like Space Exploration Technologies Corp. a chance to break into the market. The other part of that strategy entailed awarding Denver-based ULA an $11 billion sole-source contract for up to 36 launch vehicle cores, a deal that company officials say closed last June.

In unveiling its 2015 budget request, however, the Air Force said it would be reducing the number of competitively awarded missions from 14 to seven or eight. The service cited changing requirements — satellites lasting longer on orbit and stretched-out procurement cycles — as factors in that decision, but it also moved the missile warning satellite from the competitive mix and into the pool of sole-sourced ULA launches.

The committee, whose ranking member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has been a vocal advocate of competition in the Pentagon launch business, is questioning that decision.

“The committee understands that this satellite falls within the launch parameters that a new entrant is capable of launching,” the report accompanying the bill, released June 4, said. “The committee encourages increased opportunities for competition and directs the Secretary of the Air Force to report to the committee whether it is feasible to move the SBIRS GEO Satellite 4 back to the” pool of competitively selected missions.

The report also suggests the Air Force consider “any other satellite to help offset the decrease in the allotment of open competition satellites.”

Senate Committee Markup of 2015 Defense Bill

The Senate language reflects broader concern on Capitol Hill about the dearth of opportunities for competition in national security launches. In its version of the authorization bill, the House Armed Services Committee recommended taking money the Air Force requested for a new weather satellite program and using it instead to help fund a competitively awarded launch of the final Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite. That launch would become the eighth available for competition, according to the House bill.

The Senate committee also prodded the service toward a launch of the aging weather satellite and removed $87 million from the Air Force’s request to store the spacecraft.

Officials from the Defense Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plan to finish a study this summer that examines the consequences of not launching the satellite, which was built in the 1990s.

The draft Senate bill also pares back the budget for several of the Air Force’s space modernization initiatives, money that is used to, among other things, fund experiments that inform the service’s future architecture decisions. 

The bill recommends trimming $5 million from the Air Force’s $21 million request for a SBIRS for a hosted payload demonstration and $8 million from the service’s $29 million request for missile warning sensor testbed programs.

The committee also recommends cutting $7 million from the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite budget for space modernization. That funding is intended for a protected satellite communications demonstration.

Meanwhile, the committee, which gives policy as well as funding direction to the Defense Department, urged the Pentagon to join the intelligence community in endorsing U.S. satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe’s request to sell images with resolutions as sharp as 25 centimeters to non-U.S. government customers. 

The current policy, which sets the commercial bar at 50 centimeters, “unnecessarily restrains U.S. industry, not only to the detriment of consumers but also to national security, because the intelligence community, our military forces, and emergency responders all have needs for higher resolution imagery products, and especially the unclassified products that commercial industry provides,” the report accompanying the bill reads.

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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...