The leader of the House Armed Services Committee voiced his concern regarding the Air Force’s plan to procure launch service agreements with commercial vendors in a March 28 letter to service secretary Heather Wilson.

“I would like to convey my concern that the Air Force is rapidly pressing ahead with its Launch Services Procurement (LSP) plan,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in the letter, which Defense Daily reviewed. He added that the service’s upcoming request for proposals for the second phase of its launch service agreements “risks undermining the Air Force’s goal of maximizing and sustaining fair and open competition and without sufficient information to properly evaluate next generation launch systems.”

Artist’s illustration of Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital launch vehicle. Photo: Blue Origin.

Space News reported March 23 that LSP competitor Blue Origin has been making the case that the Phase 2 RFP release timeline puts newcomers in the launch industry at a disadvantage, and is advocating that the request be delayed. Critics have also pushed for the Air Force to ultimately award launch service contracts to three companies, instead of dividing the work up 60/40 to two contractors as planned.

Those critics appear to have found a champion in Smith, who said in his letter that he encourages the Air Force “to independently review and reconsider the … approach on [launch services agreements], including the impact of the down-selection to three providers in phase 1 of the LSA, in order to ensure continuous operational capability and competitive fairness.

“Companies who are able to compete for phase 2 should be on an equal playing field with regard to investments to meet national security-specific requirements,” he continued. He went on to criticize alleged changes in the RFP evaluation criteria and urged the Air Force to include the Pentagon’s own investments in the launch service agreements in the Phase 2 total evaluated price.

Air Force Spokesman Maj. Will Russell said in a Friday email to Defense Daily that the service has received Smith’s letter “and will respond through appropriate committee channels.”

The LSP program is expected to ultimately award contracts to two companies for up to 25 future launches over a five-year period under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program, previously known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Phase 1 contracts were awarded in October 2018 to the Boeing [BA]-Lockheed Martin [LMT] joint launch venture United Launch Alliance (ULA), Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems [NOC] and Blue Origin to each develop a launch vehicle prototype by 2021 for use in the program (Defense Daily, Oct. 10 2018).

Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson told the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee during a March 27 hearing on Capitol Hill that the service is “ready to issue an RFP” and said the program has little room for delay as the Air Force looks to cease use of Russian-made RD-180 rockets – which power the ULA-built Atlas V rocket – by 2022. ULA has only 12 such engines left in inventory, he noted.

“If we delay the RFP and delay the LSP award, we’ll get closer and closer to that prohibition and we’ll need to come back [to Congress] looking for RD-180s,” he told reporters after the hearing.

He told Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), the subcommittee chair and ranking member, respectively – that companies will be able to update their proposals throughout the evaluation period, which will run for 60 days after the RFP is release.

Thompson also asserted that there is simply not enough work available for three contract awards. “None of the offerors’ business cases would close if we open it up to three,” he said. “The longer we maintain the status quo, the more taxpayer dollars are going to a less competitive environment than we anticipate under LSP.”

Under the Phase 1 launch service agreements contract, Blue Origin is working on its New Glenn system, while ULA is competing the Vulcan Centaur and Northrop Grumman is pitching the OmegA system.

Space X did not receive a Phase 1 contract as it is not developing a new rocket, but has already been selected for current national security launches and could compete for LSP Phase 2, Air Force officials have previously said. Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] received an initial research-and-development contract for rocket propulsion system technologies before the Launch 1 contract awards and equally could choose to compete for Phase 2.