Senate Bill Puts Hold on Weather Sat Launch, Tightens Screws on ULA

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WASHINGTON — A newly drafted Senate defense bill would bar the U.S. Air Force from launching the last of its legacy weather satellites pending assurances that the mission is necessary and would direct the service to discontinue certain payments to its primary launch provider that critics have branded as a subsidy.

In its version of the defense authorization bill for 2016, drafted in late May, the Senate Armed Services Committee also recommended that the U.S. president develop an interagency “space control” policy in response to what U.S. government officials say are increasing threats to U.S. satellites from China and Russia.

The Senate bill, which must be reconciled with a version recently passed by the House, weighs in heavy on several military space procurement and policy issues that have driven the debate over the last year or two.

DMSP spacecraft
The last of the Pentagon’s Defense Meteorological Satellite System weather satellites , the Lockheed Martin-built DMSP F20, has been in storage since the 1990s. Now, some U.S. Senators want the Air Force to prove that the spacecraft should launch at all. Credit: U.S. Air Force artist concept

Among these is whether to launch the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 20, the last of a series of military weather satellites whose legacy dates back to the 1960s. The bill prohibits the Air Force from spending any money on the DMSP F20 launch pending certification from the secretary of defense that the military cannot obtain comparable data at a lower cost from other sources, such as civilian or international weather satellites.

The Air Force recently said it intended to proceed with the DMSP F20 launch despite the recommendation by an internal study, completed this past fall, against doing so. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the polar-orbit satellite, built in the 1990s, is needed to help plug a looming gap in weather coverage of the Middle East and surrounding regions currently provided a geostationary-orbiting European satellite slated for retirement in 2017.

The bill contains several provisions related to the Air Force’s primary satellite launching program, which has been long been the subject of controversy due to its high cost and, until just recently, lack of competition. A more recent concern is the program’s reliance on Russian-built engines to launch some of the Air Force’s most precious payloads, which the Senate panel called a threat to U.S. national security.

The use of Russian engines was banned by the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015, but how that ban will affect the upcoming competitive phases of the Air Force’s Expendable Launch Vehicle program remains an open question.

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The Senate bill would allow incumbent United Launch Alliance, whose Atlas 5 rocket is powered by a Russian-built main engine, to offer that vehicle for all nine contracts to be awarded under the initial competitive phase, now underway. The bill does not address subsequent competitions, thus leaving ULA five short of the 14 engines it says it needs to keep the Atlas 5 in the national security market until its next-generation Vulcan rocket, featuring a U.S. made engine, becomes available around 2022.

In a report accompanying the bill, the committee noted that the Russian engine ban does not affect civil space missions and suggested that Atlas 5 rockets purchased by NASA could be repurposed for military use in the event of an emergency. “While the committee does not condone the use of Russian rocket engines for NASA purposes, the committee recognizes that assured access to space can still be met if a national emergency required the use of a NASA procured launch for Department of Defense purposes,” the report said.

The Senate legislation also would put an end to the Air Force’s EELV Launch Capability payments to ULA, amounting to some $1 billion per year, that cover services not necessarily associated with a specific mission. However, the measure carves out a limited exemption for ULA’s Delta 4 rocket, which will not be offered in any EELV competitions, is powered by a U.S.-built engine and is the only rocket in the U.S. fleet that has a heavy-lift variant.

  • Other key provisions of the bill include:Delaying the purchase, now scheduled for next year, of the 10th satellite in the next-generation GPS 3 positioning, navigation and timing constellation. The bill characterized the planned purchase from GPS 3 prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver as premature.Delays on the GPS 3 program have gotten the attention of Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who grilled James about the matter during an April 29 hearing. According to an April report from the Government Accountability Office, the GPS 3 program is costing about $700 million more than original estimates and is 28 months behind schedule, due largely to development problems with the navigation payload.

    The bill would require quarterly updates about cost overruns and technical problems with the program.

  • No money for the second in the Defense Department’s “pathfinder” series of projects aimed at exploring new ways to procure satellite bandwidth from the private sector. The Air Force has no funding, either in 2015 or proposed for next year, for the second pathfinder, in which the service would commit to a prelaunch lease of an entire transponder aboard a commercial satellite.
    The House bill authorizes $26 million for the effort, although industry officials say about $52 million is needed.