In meetings with defense and intelligence committees on Capitol Hill this week, Air Force leaders defended their plan to select two winners in 2020 for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement.

The Senate in its version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act fully endorsed the Air Force’s launch procurement strategy, but the House is challenging it. Leading the opposition to the Air Force’s plan is House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) who disagrees with the decision to narrow the field to two companies and believes the Air Force is prematurely shutting industry players out of the NSSL program. He proposed language in the House NDAA that would compel the Air Force to add a third competitor at the tail end of the five-year period of the Phase 2 procurement.

The commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center Lt. Gen. John “JT” Thompson said he met with committee leaders on Tuesday and listened to their concerns. “It’s how the U.S. government works,” Thompson said..

“We are responsible to deliver capabilities to the warfighter and to ensure that capability is procured as efficiently as possible for the taxpayer. But Congress is our board of directors and all those voices are important to us,” Thompson told SpaceNews on Wednesday at the Air Force Association’s Air Space & Cyber conference at National Harbor, Maryland.

But Thompson pushed back against the criticism that the Phase 2 strategy curtails competition. “We are looking forward to a robust competition between all the offerors,” he said.

The plan is to pick two companies to split 60/40 all national security missions from 2022 to 2026. Four space launch providers — United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman submitted proposals which were due Aug. 12.

Of the four competitors. two already are pursuing legal action against the Air Force. On Aug. 12, Blue Origin filed a “pre-award” protest with the Government Accountability Office, arguing that the rules set by the Air Force do not allow for a fair and open competition.

On May 17, SpaceX filed a protest with the Court of Federal Claims over the Air Force’s Oct. 10 decision to provide funding to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and ULA, but not to SpaceX, to help them defray the expense of meeting the government’s unique launch requirements. Blue Origin got $500 million, ULA $967 million and Northrop Grumman $762 million.

The House language proposed by Smith would create a $500 million fund that SpaceX could tap into if it wins a Phase 2 contract.

Thompson said he could not comment on any pending litigation or bid protests but insisted that the Air Force has “very good working relationships with both SpaceX and Blue Origin.”

“SpaceX has over a billion dollars of work on contract, they were awarded nine national security launches,” Thompson said. “We look forward to continuing to work with them in a number of different areas.” The same applies to Blue Origin, he said. “We have a great working relationship with their teams and we are very involved as they technically mature their launch vehicle for Phase 2.”

On the perception that the Air Force favors longtime provider ULA, Thompson said that is unfounded. “I will categorically state that there is absolutely no bias against the commercial providers in the source selection process,” he said. “The foundation of our source selection process is almost extreme fairness in how we execute our source selections.”

Thompson’s deputy Brig. Gen. Donna Shipton is the vice commander of SMC and also oversees the space launch enterprise. She said proposals are being reviewed very rigorously. “We worked through more than 1,700 comments and questions” over several months, Shipton said. “We have a very well defined process. And industry understands what that process is. It’s a very fair process.”

Of the four competitors in Phase 2, all except SpaceX will be introducing brand-new vehicle designs. Shipton said the Air Force is satisfied so far with the progress made in the development of these new vehicles.

“Our team has been very involved in all the major milestone reviews for each system,” she said. “Currently we believe they are at the right level of maturity for where they need to be,” Shipton added. “Right now we see no reason for them not to be ready on the timeframes that we require. Obviously we’ll continue to track that closely going forward.”

Senate and House conferees for the NDAA will meet tomorrow to begin the process of resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the defense authorization bill.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...