Budget pressures also played into the Air Force’s decision to delay and reduce a number of national security space launches it was supposed to begin competing in the next few years, the head of the service’s space effort said Thursday.

Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) chief Gen. William Shelton said, in addition to the health of the service’s Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite fleet, declining defense spending caused the Air Force to reduce its competed Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions from 14 to seven from fiscal years 2015 to 2017. The Defense Department said in its FY ’15 budget request it wanted to defer two next-generation GPS III satellites beyond FY ’19.

ULA's Delta IV rocket is sometimes used in EELV missions. Photo: ULA.
ULA’s Delta IV rocket is sometimes used in EELV missions. Photo: ULA.

“I know some people are concerned about (competition), they think (the delay) is taking away competitive capability,” Shelton told a House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing. “That was budget-based, it was not based on any reduction of our desire to have competition.”

Air Force officials had previously maintained only burgeoning GPS health as the reason for reducing and delaying this window of EELV launches. An email to AFSPC for clarification was not returned by press time. The Air Force requested $138 billion for FY ’15, down $372 million from what was enacted for FY ’14.

A group of senators Tuesday asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to review the Air Force’s decision to reduce the competed EELV missions from FYs 2015 to 2017 (Defense Daily, April 2). They claim this action does not comply with a 2012 acquisition decision memorandum (ADM) from Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) Frank Kendall to “aggressively introduce” competition and identify up to 14 missions that should be competed as early as 2015.

The senators also accused the Air Force of not intending to compete a single EELV launch in 2015 (Defense Daily, March 5). Shelton said Thursday he thought the Air Force would have at least one mission up for competition next year.

Shelton also said breaking up the Air Force’s “block buy” of 36 launch cores awarded to EELV incumbent launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) would add “significant expense” to the EELV program. Kendall, in his 2012 ADM, approved the Air Force’s request to buy as many as 36 launch cores in an attempt to reduce the cost of launches.

“If you said…we’re going to compete all the rockets we have in play right now, it’s definitely going to drive up the prices because, again, those economic order quantities wouldn’t be there…So almost anything we did to the current strategy is going to drive cost.”

ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA].