- - Tuesday, March 24, 2015


If America didn’t have hundreds of satellites in orbit, our Air Force, Navy and Army — as well as our intelligence agencies — wouldn’t be deaf, dumb and blind. But they’d come close. Our aircraft, ships and submarines are designed to depend on satellites for their high-technology capabilities.

Satellites enable us to communicate securely and to see and listen to most of what adversary nations and terrorist groups want to conceal. It all boils down to the fact that without the ability to produce and launch satellites when we need to, our military can’t defend the nation.

Satellites vary as much in size, weight and capabilities as cars. Some are relatively small, light and cheap but the most important “reconnaissance” (i.e., spy) satellites are large, heavy and can cost upwards of $1 billion. They enable us to intercept communications, watch adversaries’ movements and do other things that dwell in the “black” — most highly classified — realm. They are, in Air Force parlance, the “crown jewels.”

If one is damaged during launch, or launched into the wrong orbit, it loses a part or all of its expensive capabilities. Satellite launch procedures thus have to ensure that we get it right the first time and every time. It is, literally, rocket science.

About 10 years ago, when the Pentagon and the “classified” customers decided it was essential to keep two launch vehicles (the Atlas V and the Delta IV) available despite the shaky market, a joint venture was formed between the two companies that made the rockets — Lockheed-Martin and Boeing — named United Launch Alliance (ULA).

So far, ULA has conducted 75 successful launches. But rocket science is very expensive. Launch prices have quadrupled over ULA’s first decade. That naturally led to rising competition from companies such as PayPal billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). Others, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and David Thompson’s Orbital Sciences are also entering the launch services market. (I was a consultant for ULA for several months in 2012).

These companies aren’t playthings for the billionaire boys’ club. They are serious entrants into the launch services market, as evidenced by the political and legal war between SpaceX and ULA.

SpaceX contends that ULA’s launch costs are unreasonably high and that it can perform the same launch services for a fraction of the cost. When ULA was awarded a five-year $11 billion contract in December 2013, Mr. Musk’s company sued to cancel the contract award. (The suit was settled when the Air Force agreed to let SpaceX compete for a greater number of national security launches.)

ULA’s chief executive officer at the time, Michael Gass, defended the award, saying that ULA’s cost per launch varied from $164 million to $350 million depending on the satellite’s size and weight. Just last week, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, told the House Armed Services Committee that her company could perform the same launches for $100 million.

ULA’s problems aren’t just high costs. Their Atlas V booster uses the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine. Last year, reacting to the Russian conquest of Crimea and offensives against Ukraine, Congress banned the use of RD-180s beyond 2019. ULA may not be able to qualify a replacement for national security launches before that supply runs out.

It may be that SpaceX can substantially reduce launch costs, but cost isn’t the only issue. With lower costs can come risks, and we’re back to the question of who has the sufficiently demonstrated capabilities to be trusted with launching the crown jewels. SpaceX is now undergoing months-long processes that precede Air Force and NASA certification that it can be trusted with those launches.

Though SpaceX has had its successes — such as resupplying the International Space Station — it has its own problems. In late 2012, its booster released a “piggybacked” satellite — one that was not the principal payload — into the wrong orbit, necessitating its destruction. Its Falcon 9 heavy lifter is supposedly a reusable rocket that will land tail-first on dry land. However, earlier this year, a Falcon 9 crashed and burned attempting such a landing. Now, it’s partially redesigning the rocket to improve the reusable core and boost thrust. That redesign may require additional USAF and NASA procedures delaying its certification, though.

That leaves the Air Force facing a problem it lacks the funds to solve. SpaceX will, at some point soon, be certified to launch national security payloads, but not all of them because they now lack the heavy-lift capability of the Delta IV. ULA’s costs are high, but for every launch allocated to SpaceX that might otherwise have been launched by ULA’s Atlas V, economies of scale are lost and costs rise.

In the past, with systems such as the Tomahawk cruise missile, the Pentagon has chosen to sustain more than one manufacturer to encourage competition. But in the era of budget sequestration, the Air Force may soon have to face a choice between SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and ULA’s Atlas V-Delta IV combination. It’s possible that ULA could split and Boeing take its Delta IV to compete alone for the biggest and heaviest satellites.

Whatever the budget dictates is, unfortunately, most likely to happen. The only right solution to the Air Force’s problem is the one that ensures we can launch the crown jewels with precision whenever the need arises.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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