Most of the changes the Air Force made to spur competition in its third Global Positioning System III (GPS III-3) launch-mission solicitation focused on contract execution, according to a key officer.
Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) chief Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves said Aug. 5 via a spokeswoman that elements of the request for proposals (RFP) such as the model contract, performance work statements (PWS), contract data requirements list (CDRL) and payment plan were modified to add a milestone payment for upper stage disposal. The service did this, Greaves said, to further incentivize offerors to comply with orbital debris requirements.
Greaves said the Air Force adjusted the initial and final contract deliverable to appropriate payment milestones to spur competition. The Air Force, he said, also added language to the RFP emphasizing the importance of launch system certification as a key element and high technical bar providing required insight into the technical capabilities and rigorous processes that demonstrate a contractor’s ability to design, develop, manufacture and launch military missions.
The Air Force appears to have learned from its previous GPS III launch RFP as United Launch Alliance (ULA) in 2016 publicly declared it wouldn’t bid for the contract for a variety of reasons, including cost accounting requirements and RD-180 engine availability. Greaves said these concerns have been resolved. Infusing competition into the military launch market has been a key initiative of the Air Force under Secretary Deborah James. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) was awarded the GPS III-2 contract.
The Air Force, Greaves said, considered using other source selection methodologies, including value adjusted total evaluated price (VATEP), but eventually determined the requirements for this specific GPS III-3 mission did not warrant or support a change in evaluation approach. However, Greaves said VATEP and other methodologies will be considered for future competitions supporting different missions with their unique requirements.
A former NASA official believes Air Force leadership has been painted into a corner in its effort to infuse competition into EELV missions. Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC, said Aug. 8 if the Air Force has a competition with one competitor clearly more expensive than the other, the logical strategy for the more expensive contractor will be, first, to try and persuade the Air Force to alter the rules to minimize the importance of cost. If that doesn’t work, Miller said, the more expensive contractor would likely not bid, which is what ULA did last time around.
Miller believes the Air Force should not measure “success” for GPS III-3 on whether it gets at least two bids. That, he said, gives the competitors too much leverage to game the rules of the competition. He said the competitors can force the Air Force to write the rules to their liking or refuse to play.
Instead, Miller said the Air Force should write the rules as it thinks appropriate and merited and if one bidder decides to not bid, that is their choice. Prospective bidders are ULA, SpaceX and possibly Orbital ATK [OA], which is developing its own Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class rocket based on solid rocket motors.
Another industry observer believes the Air Force is facing a tall order in infusing competition into launch. Brian Weeden, technical advisor for the Secure World Foundation and a retired Air Force officer, said Aug. 8 the service is trying to figure out a path to develop additional launch capability that will bring down costs and eliminate reliance on the “wild card” RD-180 engine without jeopardizing reliability or the ability to get national security payloads to their proper orbits.
Weeden said the mainstay of the current national security launch fleet has been the Atlas V, powered by the RD-180, and that there has been a lot of political pressure to eliminate that dependency. But right now, he said, only ULA can deliver the payload mass and sizes to all of the orbit regimes needed to support national security missions.
Weeden believes the Air Force’s ideal situation is the budget and policy sectors being able to foster development of multiple new American launch capabilities such as ULA’s Vulcan, and perhaps others, while also encouraging the continued development of SpaceX’s capabilities. Weeden said that would give the Air Force a variety of launch providers to choose from in order to meet all its requirements.
But Weeden said exchanging one monopoly for another would put the Air Force back at square one. If there is not competition for the GPS III-3 launch, Weeden said, that may make it harder for the Air Force to get to the end state it wants. Weeden also said if the service ends up with SpaceX replacing ULA as the monopoly provider of space launch, it might not be any better than the current situation of ULA monopoly.