LOS ANGELES — At least twice as many national security launches are projected for 2020 compared to 2019, according to U.S. Air Force projections.

“It’s really going to be an exciting year,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s launch enterprise, told SpaceNews Dec. 5.

“We could have as many as 11 national security launches in 2020, although I don’t think we’ll get that many,” he said. “It’ll probably end up between eight and 10.”

That would be a dramatic increase over 2019, when only four national security launches were carried out, all by United Launch Alliance. In January, a Delta 4 Heavy flew the NROL-71 for the National Reconnaissance Office. In March, the Air Force’s WGS-10 satellite was launched aboard a Delta 4 Medium. In August, an Atlas 5 flew an Air Force AEHF-5 satellite, and a GPS 3 vehicle was launched aboard a Delta 4 Medium

Bongiovi said the 2020 manifest is very much in flux, especially because most of the launches are scheduled in the latter part of the year and payloads might not be ready on time. “That’s why I’m hedging on the number,” he said. “Some may slip into 2021. But even if we only do eight, that’s a big deal.”

A normal year is between six and eight, said Bongiovi. “This year was a little low, so even eight will be a big increase.”

“We could see four or five Atlas launches and potentially two Delta Heavies for the NRO,” said Bongiovi. SpaceX has national security missions scheduled for 2020 as well, with as many as three by Falcon 9’s and the first Falcon Heavy national security mission.

In addition to the pickup in launch activity, there are other reasons why 2020 will be eventful, Bongiovi said. “We’ll be making a Phase 2 award, and that’s going to be huge.” The Air Force intends to select two launch providers for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement.

Four companies — ULA, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — are competing for two slots.

Once the selection is announced, “We’ll be ordering launches, three are funded in the president’s budget,” Bongiovi said.

Another trend to watch in 2020 is the progress of the new launch vehicles that ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are developing for the Phase 2 competition. All three companies project their new rockets will fly for the first time in 2021.

“That means we’ll be doing final development and production of first-flight hardware in 2020,” said Bongiovi. “We’ll be doing a ton of testing.”

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...