Atlas 5 launch
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, powered by the Russian RD-180 engine, launches a mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON – A $517 billion defense spending bill the U.S. House Appropriations Committee will mark up May 17 cuts nearly $500 million from the Air Force’s main launch budget.

The cuts, according to a draft of the bill obtained by SpaceNews, would only permit the Air Force to award contracts next year for three launches instead of the five the Defense Department plans to buy from either United Launch Alliance or SpaceX for missions slated for 2019 or later.

The Air Force is seeking $1.8 billion for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program for fiscal year 2017, which starts Oct. 1. House appropriators included only $1.3 billion for the program, saying $478 of the Air Force’s request is “early to need”  — or premature — but not not provide further explanation.

Three of the five launch contracts the Air Force intends to award next year would be put out for bid to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, the only two EELV-certified launch service providers.  The other launch contracts the Air Force intends to award in 2017 are covered under a 2013 block buy deal with ULA.

In addition to cutting the funding available for new launch contracts, House appropriators also want the Air Force to consider “the best value to the government” in evaluating bids.

ULA has been pushing for the best-value approach since it sat out last fall’s GPS-3 launch competition saying it couldn’t win a price shootout against SpaceX, which will launch the satellite which was awarded an $82.7 million contract last month for a May 2018 launch of a GPS-3 satellite. That contract was awarded as part of a best value source selection.

“We do not yet feel we are in a position to win price-only competitions with our competitor,” Tory Bruno, ULA president and chief executive, said in a March interview with SpaceNews. “We believe we have better performance, reliability and schedule certainty.”

Those traits would carry greater weight in a best-value competition.

Weather Skepticism

Meanwhile, the draft bill — which hadn’t been released by the House Appropriations Committee as of May 13 —  shows  appropriators remains skeptical toward the Air Force’s weather satellite program.

“The Committee is concerned that the Department of Defense lacks sufficient focus and planning capability to efficiently and affordably meet weather data collection requirements,” the bill said.

The House Appropriations committee suggested $89 million in funding for the next-generation Weather Satellite Follow-on program next year. That’s $30 million less than the White House requested.

For years, lawmakers have been concerned the Air Force does not have a plan to remedy a series of weather satellite data gaps. Last month, the House Armed Services Committee suggested some of the Air Force’s weather mission should be shifted to the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the country’s spy satellites, in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017.

SATCOM Consolidation

The draft defense spending bill also calls for the Defense Department to better coordinate its satellite communications programs.

Currently, the Defense Department relies on the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System for its narrowband needs for ships on the move and the Wideband Global Satcom satellites, managed by the Air Force, for its wideband needs at bases. It uses the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites for highly protected communications.

“It appears that the Department continues to independently plan each major piece of the architecture, thereby sub-optimizing capability, performance, and affordability,” the bill said. “The Committee encourages the Secretary of Defense to consolidate SATCOM planning and budget authority into one entity.”

As a result, appropriators want to strip $30 million from the Air Force’s AEHF budget, providing $874 million in funding next year. The White House had requested $904 million.

Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said in March that the Defense Department may abandon its practice of distinguishing between narrowband and wideband on future generations of satellites.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.