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Defense Hawks May Look to Boost Competition in Air Force Satellite Launches

“Well, it’s no secret that we have anticipated a competition, which will engage another company in this process,” Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said at an April 2 hearing with Air Force leaders. “And I believe the president’s budget diminishes that competition in years to come, which seems to be moving in an opposite direction, really putting most of our fate in the ULA project to continue despite the question mark about Russian sources.”

James has explained that the reason behind the launch delays is that the GPS satellites that would have been replaced are simply lasting longer than anticipated. She has also stressed that seven of the eight light launches over the next five years will be competitive, assuming new entrants qualify.

Lawmakers, however, remain unconvinced about the new timetable. In an April 1 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, six senators said the reduction in launch opportunities over the next five years undermines the commitment to competition.

“We understand from recent public statements from the Air Force that new entrants to the EELV program may be certified this year,” the senators wrote. “If there is more than one certified provider capable of executing any Air Force launch, we believe that those missions should be competed.”

Signatories on the letter include California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, New Mexico Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker and Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill.

Feinstein sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee; Wicker and McCaskill are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The anticipated launch delays have only added fuel to the already hot battle for space programs. SpaceX has boasted that it could save the taxpayers billions on launches, while ULA has touted its flawless track record on 68 satellite launches.

“Getting the competition opened up is the primary focus right now because once the competition is open, then they can let the Air Force decide what is going to be the most reliable, what is going to be the best” from a cost and national security perspective, a SpaceX spokesman said last week.

But the Air Force has stressed it still plans to compete those launches — just later than they had originally planned.

“There is no secret plan, there’s no conspiracy inside DOD, to take the other seven [launches] and give them to ULA,” Bitterman said.

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