Mike Coffman
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.). Credit: Rep. Coffman

WASHINGTON — A Colorado lawmaker says the U.S. Air Force’s first competitive launch procurement in a decade was “prejudiced” against incumbent United Launch Alliance, which has effectively ceded the work to archrival SpaceX.

In a Nov. 25 news release, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), a member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which oversees military space, asked the Air Force to review and explain its bidding requirements for the 2018 launch of a GPS 3 navigation satellite.

The announcement is the latest salvo in jockeying among lawmakers over the Defense Department’s newly competitive satellite launching program.

On Nov. 19, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Service Committee, asked the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), to reject the idea of inserting a provision into a must-pass federal spending bill that would give the U.S. military access to a controversial Russian rocket engine until an alternative becomes available.

That provision, if approved, would effectively neutralize the ban on the use of Russian engines for national security launches imposed by Congress following Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in 2014. Denver-based ULA, whose workhorse Atlas 5 rocket is powered by the Russian-built RD-180 engine, has said the ban will leave it unable to compete for future U.S. military business against SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

Bids were due in mid-November for the GPS satellite launch, the first such competition. ULA, which previously threatened not to bid on the contract, on Nov. 16 said it had bowed out of the competition.

The Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture cited the engine ban among its reasons but emphasized that the procurement required bidders to prove that they would not piggyback on existing Air Force business to keep their prices down. ULA’s current contracts with the Air Force include one that provides about $1 billion per year for overhead and other services not necessarily associated with a given launch.

In its statement to reporters, ULA said it did not have the proper accounting systems in place to separate out its existing Air Force business “and therefore cannot submit a compliant proposal.”

Sen. John McCain
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Service Committee, asked the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee to reject the idea of inserting a provision into a must-pass federal spending bill that would give the U.S. military access to the Russian RD-180 rocket engine until an alternative becomes available. Credit: U.S. Army Chief of Staff

Coffman said the Air Force procurement did not require SpaceX to similarly account for its NASA business.

“I fully support fair and open competition, but holding the bidders to different standards and not considering past performance, has essentially stacked the deck,” Coffman said in the release. “It concerns me greatly to learn that the Air Force has reconfigured its new [request for proposal] process in a way that blocks the competition, innovation and reliability that taxpayers deserve and demand. … I’m calling on the Air Force to immediately review this process. It’s not in the taxpayers’ interest to tilt the field towards a single launch provider on such an important national security mission.”

Meanwhile, ULA’s continued access to the RD-180 remains an open question as lawmakers debate a spending bill that would allow the federal government, including the Defense Department, to operate after Dec. 11. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in November he was considering adding a provision to the spending bill that would give ULA access to the engine until a replacement becomes available around the end of the decade.

McCain opposes any such measure. Instead, he supports a provision, contained in the pending National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016, that would make only four more engines available for future national security launch competitions.

“Recent attempts by the incumbent contractor to manufacture a crisis by prematurely diminishing its stockpile of engines purchased prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea should be viewed with skepticism and scrutinized heavily,” McCain wrote in a letter to Cochran.

McCain said the NDAA achieves a “delicate balance” that gives ULA time to transition to new technology.

“I believe avoiding the year-over-year re-litigation of this matter between our authorizing and appropriating committees is in our best interest, inasmuch as such back-and-forth only delays our shared to desire to eliminate Russian technology from our space launch supply chain and injects instability into the [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] program — not conducive to its success in ensuring the reliable launch of our most sensitive national security satellites or the stability of the fragile industrial base that supports them,” he said.

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.