Air Force launch competition to reshape industrial base

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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

The Air Force is expected to release this week a final solicitation for industry bids for the Launch Service Procurement competition. The plan is to select two companies in 2020 to compete for up to 25 national security launches to be awarded from 2022 to 2027.

The stakes could not be higher for the field of competitors — expected to include incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, and newcomers Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and Blue Origin. While the industry is eager to win military contracts, the decision to choose only two companies to move forward has been controversial and criticized for being unnecessarily rushed. Three of the four competitors will not fly their vehicles until 2021. Companies are investing billions of dollars into the development of rockets and infrastructure. Executives argue that eliminating competitors before they even get to fly their vehicles contradicts the Air Force’s rhetoric about wanting to expand the launch industrial base.

But there’s a practical and legitimate reason why the Air Force has to narrow the field down to to two. There is simply not enough business for more than two, ULA CEO Tory Bruno told SpaceNews last fall. The Air Force projects a slump in launches over the coming years because the Pentagon is transitioning to a new generation of satellites that will be in development for a few years before they enter production and are ready for launch. “The launch cadence falls off for five to seven years before it picks up again,” said Bruno. The Air Force is bringing in new competitors into the launch market “at a challenging moment because there isn’t a larger demand to support additional players. Any more than two creates industrial base problems.”

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