A key lawmaker Friday floated the idea of paying United Launch Alliance (ULA) to keep its Delta IV rocket available for future national security space launches, in contrast to the company’s current plan to retire the launch vehicle later this decade.

House Armed Services (HASC) strategic forces subcommittee Ranking Member Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) asked during a hearing whether the federal government has the legal ability to force the continuation of the “Delta medium.” ULA has said it plans to retire the Delta IV in the 2018-2019 timeframe because it is not cost-competitive in an environment that includes Space Exploration Technology Corp.’s (SpaceX) Falcon 9. ULA CEO Tory Bruno reiterated that belief Friday.

A Delta IV rocket lifts GPS IIF-6 into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., May 16, 2014. Photo: ULA.
A Delta IV rocket lifts GPS IIF-6 into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., May 16, 2014. Photo: ULA.

“So we could make it happen if we paid them?” Cooper asked. To which Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) chief Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves responded, “yes, sir.”

This would largely be an extension of the current and somewhat controversial Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Launch Capability (ELC) contract the Air Force currently has with ULA. The cost-plus-incentive-fee contract, worth roughly $1 billion annually, was created in the mid-2000s when the launch industrial base was fragile and the federal government allowed Lockheed Martin’s [LMT] and Boeing’s [BA] launch companies to merge as ULA to provide two launch vehicles, or “assured access” to space.

SpaceX, since its emergence on the scene as a competitor for military space launches, has criticized the ELC as a government subsidy for ULA and called for its termination. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) chief Gen. John Hyten, who also testified Friday, has said the service is contemplating modifying the ELC deal to level the playing field for the Air Force’s upcoming launch competition (Defense Daily, March 26).

Bruno said Friday the because ULA foresees fewer Defense Department and intelligence community (IC) space launches in the near future, it doesn’t believe the military launch market can support two companies. Bruno said to compete in this environment, ULA needs to be able to effectively compete for civil and commercial missions, which it doesn’t believe it can do with the Delta IV. A Delta IV launch starts at $400 million and more, depending on weight and consideration, according to multiple sources.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) asked Bruno Friday if ULA could secure private financing to help bridge that gap between the end of the Atlas V’s current contracts and the availability of its new Vulcan launch vehicle. Bruno said it’s “unlikely” that the capital markets would look at “this uncertain investment environment” any more favorably that ULA parent companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing because ULA isn’t sure it will have the other launch vehicle, the Atlas V, available because of the RD-180 ban that goes into effect in 2019. The Atlas V uses the Russian-developed RD-180.

“That leaves a multi-year period of time when we have no product to bring to the marketplace, not very likely I can attract money from capital markets from that,” Bruno said.

SpaceX spokesman John Taylor was unable to respond with comment by press time Friday. ULA spokesman Jessica Rye did not respond to an email requesting comment.