WASHINGTON — Despite the rising cost of its two primary space launch vehicles, the U.S. Air Force does not intend to reconsider until 2013 its commitment to supporting both the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, Pentagon officials said Feb. 15.

The 2012 budget request the Air Force sent Congress Feb. 14 includes $1.76 billion for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, a figure that includes the price of four launches. A fifth EELV launch will be paid for in 2012 by the U.S. Navy. 

The Air Force’s EELV request is $576 million more than it requested for the program for 2011 and $430 million more than the Pentagon anticipated requesting for 2012 in the spending blueprint it sent Congress a year ago. Over the next five years, the Air Force anticipates spending a total of $9.9 billion on EELV, compared with the $6.3 billion the Air Force estimated last year.

The steep EELV budget increase is driven by a combination of higher material costs since the Air Force last negotiated Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launch contracts and a recent decision by the Defense Department and intelligence community to increase their support of the EELV manufacturing base by ordering more rockets each year. The Pentagon now plans to buy five EELV launches each year from Denver-based United Launch Alliance, and the National Reconnaissance Office will buy three per year, Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers, the Air Force’s deputy assistant budget secretary, said during a Feb. 14 briefing at the Pentagon.

The Defense Department maintains the separate Atlas 5 and Delta 4 fleets to increase the odds at least one of the rockets is always in service to carry national security payloads to orbit.

Maj. Gen. John Hyten, director of space programs in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said the Pentagon will not revisit the so-called assured access strategy until 2013.

“We need to be able to get to space from multiple paths on the East Coast and the West Coast,” Hyten said during a Feb. 15 media briefing. “So we have to have assured access to space. Right now that’s the structure that we’re in. We’re not considering going to one family.”

For 2012, the main goal is to stabilize the industrial base by committing to buy eight rockets for the Defense Department and intelligence community, Hyten said. When the Pentagon re-evaluates its space launch strategy in 2013, it will consider new entrants that may be capable of launching military payloads, he said.


New Acquisition Strategy

Air Force officials said the service’s 2012 budget request reflects an attempt to fundamentally change how it purchases production-ready satellites.

The Air Force traditionally orders one satellite at a time, paying the prime contractor one year for long-lead parts and funding the satellite’s production the next. This practice results in funding peaks and valleys where in any given year as much as a fourth of the roughly $10 billion the service spends on unclassified space programs is tied up in a single satellite. Ordering one satellite at a time also creates uncertainty for the industrial base, particularly for second- and third-tier suppliers.

Under the proposed Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Efficiency strategy — EASE for short — the service would buy satellites in blocks of two or more, with funding spread over as many as six years, Under Secretary of the Air Force Erin Conaton said Feb. 15. The Air Force believes buying satellites in this fashion will create cost savings of at least 10 percent, she said.

The Air Force is proposing to try this new approach in 2012 with the Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellite program, spreading the approximately $4 billion purchase price of a fifth and sixth satellite over several years.

This would be followed in 2013 by the initial payment for the fifth and sixth Space Based Infrared System missile warning spacecraft. Both constellations are built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Conaton said she is optimistic Congress will approve the new acquisition strategy, given the numerous reports to come out of the congressional defense committees in recent years urging space acquisition reform.

“If we don’t get approval for this … it will return us to a ‘business as usual’ way of doing satellites, where we have to fully fund a satellite in a particular year, which creates a huge amount of pressure on the Air Force top line and then forces us to take tradeoffs in other parts of the space portfolio,” Conaton said.


Space Situational Awareness

One omission in the Air Force’s 2012 budget request is money to build a follow-on to the first Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite that launched in September. The Air Force at one time planned to hold a competition among industry to build the satellite and get it on orbit while the first satellite is still operating. The Defense Department is committed to improving its space situational awareness capabilities, but buying a second SBSS satellite may not be the best way to do it, Conaton said.

“I think you will see continued investment in [space situational awareness],” Conaton said. “I don’t know that we will go back to this specific program with this specific approach.”

The first SBSS satellite was built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. The satellite, though not yet operational, has been generating “fabulous” data that have exceeded expectations, Hyten said.

The first SBSS satellite cost $838.2 million, including a $104.1 million increase that was the result of a 12-month delay due to launch vehicle problems, Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Tracy Bunko said Feb. 16. But the Pentagon was concerned that the second SBSS satellite would cost nearly $1 billion, Hyten said.

“We had information from contractors and information from the cost estimating community that made that investment very difficult from an affordability standpoint,” he said.



Pentagon Seeks To Boost Spending on EELV Rockets