Change is afoot for the U.S. military space program as the Air Force contemplates an overhaul of its satellite constellation architecture while gearing up for the introduction of competition in national security launches.
The House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which oversees military space and missile defense programs, appears to have reservations about both trends. The panel has drafted defense authorization bill language that would put the brakes on some of the Air Force’s proposed space modernization initiatives, while its chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), has questioned the readiness of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to launch billion-dollar national security payloads.
Currently national security launches are the near-exclusive province of Denver-based, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture whose main rocket production facility is in Decatur, Alabama. has a near-perfect track record, but its high prices have fueled a groundswell of support, particularly in the Senate, behind ’s bid to topple its monopoly.
Amid a decline in U.S.-Russian relations, ULA also faces questions about the future availability of the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers the first stage of its Atlas 5 rocket, one of the company’s two workhorses. Though skeptical of new programs, Rogers and his subcommittee are keen on developing a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 and have recommended spending $220 million on the effort next year.
Rogers also has been a vocal advocate for reforming how the Defense Department buys commercial satellite bandwidth and has raised the possibility of introducing legislation to advance that cause. The legislation likely would seek to ease U.S. government accounting rules that make it difficult for the military to enter into long-term leases for commercial satellite capacity, as opposed to the yearlong leases that are the norm today. Commercial satellite operators say long-term leases are more cost efficient and would better enable them to better match their fleets to the military’s requirements.
In the missile defense area, Rogers supports initiatives for a redesigned kill vehicle for the nation’s primary shield and for a long-range radar that would better discriminate between warheads and decoys. Both efforts have been cited as top priorities by Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency.
Rogers, who is expected to win re-election this November, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has included language in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 that bans the Defense Department from using launch companies that rely on Russian suppliers. Will you be focusing on that language when you meet with members of that committee in conference to hash out a final version of the bill?
That language, the way I understand the military interpreting it, would basically say they can’t use the RD-180s, even the ones we already have. That’s just not an option. We’re going to have to work in conference with the [Senate Armed Services Committee] members to try to find a way to remedy that so the Air Force doesn’t feel like their hands are tied and to at least to use the engines that we’ve got while we continue to go forward with new options.
You’ve raised questions about the Air Force’s process for certifying SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to carry national security payloads. Are you comfortable with how that is going?
I am. I want the military to tell me when they’re certified, when they’re able to launch, and when they can get the job done. Since we’re spending so much money and so much on the payload, I want the military to say they’re capable of doing it. I think the certification process is important. I think it’s reasonable.
Would you be comfortable with SpaceX launching a missile warning satellite or payload for the National Reconnaissance Office?
If the Department of Defense said it was certified and capable of doing it with great success. We’ve had wonderful successes with our launches. I want to keep it that way, notwithstanding who the vendor is.
What was your reaction to the partnership between ULA and Blue Origin to build a new engine to replace the RD-180?
I’m very excited about that. Since I’ve been made aware of how reliant we are on the RD-180, I’ve been calling for us to get some domestically produced alternatives, so now comes this venture. Along with whatis doing, that means that on the horizon we’ve got two entities working at a pretty good clip coming up with a domestically produced option that will mature about the same time we exhaust the current inventory of engines. It’s great news.
Are you hopeful an engine can be done before 2019?
That will be up to these companies. But what both of them are saying is when you look at the timeline it takes to mature one of these, you’re looking at another three to four years. Hopefully they can speed it up.
Would you be interested in devoting more dollars to the cause to accelerate the pace?
I would. And we demonstrated that in our authorization.
Why do you believe there needs to be a third interceptor site for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system and why does it need to be near the East Coast of the United States?
With the growing concern about Iran, we need that East Coast site. That’s been known for years. The fact that we’re doing this preliminary site development is just required. I think you’re going to see an East Coast site. It is absolutely essential. More and more people are going to recognize that fact as Iran continues to develop its threat.
The East Coast site seems to be taking a while to come together. What’s holding things up?
We have all sorts of challenges. Political challenges are a big part of it. Money’s a challenge as much as anything.
Are you happy with the current rate of system testing at the Missile Defense Agency?
Satisfied. I wouldn’t say I’m happy but I’m satisfied.
What are your expectations for the new or redesigned kill vehicle the Missile Defense Agency is working on?
I’m very pleased with it. Adm. Syring is the perfect guy to be pursuing that. He has it as a top priority on his agenda of to-dos, and that’s where it needs to be. I have such confidence in him. I’m going to be thrilled with whatever product he comes up with, but I’m leaving the technical components to him.
What kind of work do you hope to get done with Air Force Space Command and its new commander, Gen. John Hyten?
The big thing that I’ve been focused on is we’ve got to do more partnerships with the commercial sector to get assets in space. As we’re realizing now, we don’t have enough eyes in the sky. The commercial world would like to have us as a customer. We’ve got some problems here with budget scoring in trying to allow us to enter into long-term agreements with some of these commercial satellite companies. These commercial companies have to go to Wall Street to get the money and if you’ve only got a one-year contract, that’s a problem. But if you can go to Wall Street and say you’ve got a five-year contract with an option for another five years, it makes it a lot easier to get the money and make it happen. It’s just a difficult process, mainly because of the budget scoring process here, the methods we have to use. It may take some legislation to resolve that conflict. That’s what I’m working on now.
We have a need for more capability in space and we don’t have the money to do it all at one time. The private sector wants to get more assets up there and have us as a customer. We have to find a way to make that happen.
Will we see legislation in the coming years that removes the barriers to entering into long-term service contracts with satellite operators?
Hopefully. We’re working on it. I’ve met with acquisition folks from all the services and tried to get them to come up with language. We’re going to see if we can’t get it done short of legislation, but I’ll be bringing legislation next year to get it done if that’s what it requires.
Your subcommittee has not been enthusiastic in supporting new satellite development programs. Are you concerned that the Defense Department is not getting enough out of its investments in the existing systems?
That’s exactly where I am. I don’t want to start anything new until we’ve taken care of what we got. And we’re not taking care of what we’ve got now. New programs just suck all the oxygen out of the place.
Are there specific programs you’d like to get more out of?
We’ve got all sorts of modernization problems throughout the enterprise. It’s not one in particular. Any of my hearings, we talk about modernization constantly. It’s a real challenge for us.
What should we expect to see from your subcommittee in the next 12 months?
You’re going to see me continue to talk about modernization and more public-private partnerships to get our needs, particularly in space, met.