In response to House appropriators’ concerns that the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program represents 40 percent of the U.S. Space Force’s $2.5 billion procurement budget request, the office of Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper says that NSSL has achieved significant savings and that NSSL represents just 13 percent of total research and development and procurement costs across unclassified and classified space programs.

The Space Force, the sixth military service established last December, does not yet have its own Service Acquisition Executive (SAE), and there has yet to be a nominee for an Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration who could serve as the Space Force SAE.

The House Appropriations Committee’s fiscal 2021 funding bill recommended reducing the $1 billion proposed by the U.S. Space Force in fiscal 2021 for NSSL program by $109 million due to what the committee termed unjustified cost increases.

The committee advised cutting $104 million for launch services and support and $5.9 million for enterprise systems engineering, according to the committee’s report on the fiscal 2021 defense appropriations bill.

“The committee is concerned with the cost of the NSSL procurements, which account for more than 40 percent of the Space Force procurement budget,” the report said. “The committee is aware that the cost of launch services has dropped significantly in recent years as a result of increased competition from new entrants, yet the requested budget does not follow this downward trend, and remains stubbornly high, raising questions about the government’s cost to manage and oversee the program. The committee believes commercial practices must remain the cornerstone of the launch program and should only incorporate mission assurance practices that improve it.”

House appropriators advised funding NSSL research and development at the requested amount of nearly $561 million.

The NSSL program “has already accomplished significant savings,” according to an Aug. 7 email response to Defense Daily from Roper’s office on the concerns of the House Appropriations Committee with the procurement costs of NSSL.

“The NSSL program’s award of the Phase 1 Block Buy in 2013, Phase 1A competition re-introduction starting in 2015, and the anticipated Phase 2 award savings enabled reallocation of over $7 billion in budgeted procurement funds for additional warfighter capabilities,” the email said. “Since 2013, the total life cycle cost reduction through the end of the program in 2030 now stands at $22 billion. The Launch Enterprise garnered these cost savings by creating innovative acquisition strategies, procuring launch services in economic order quantities, and fostering robust competition precipitated by investments in new commercial launch systems that also meet more stressing NSSL needs. The NSSL program has achieved these savings while maintaining a 100% mission success record that now stands at 81 of 81.”

The Air Force may award contracts this month for Phase 2 of its launch service procurement (LSP) effort, with the intent to award contracts to two providers for missions launching through fiscal year 2027.

The LSP program is expected to award two companies with up to 25 launches over a five-year period under the contract vehicle for NSSL, formerly known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). The NSSL effort will allow the Air Force to end reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine by leveraging U.S. commercial launch capabilities.

Roper has said that the Air Force can only afford to award contracts to two launch providers for future national security space launches, after a government-sponsored study largely agreed with that assessment.

Four launch providers – Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems [NOC], Blue Origin, Space X and United Launch Alliance (ULA) — are in the running to win two contracts in Phase 2.

The RAND Corp. released a report in April, “Assessing the Impact of U.S. Air Force National Security Space Launch Acquisition Decisions: An Independent Analysis of the Global Heavy Lift Launch Market, which mostly concurred with the service’s assessment that support exists for two, not three, launch providers. But the report also recommended that the Air Force “provide tailored support through 2023 to enable three U.S. launch service providers to continue in or enter the heavy lift launch market” in the event that newly designed vehicles may take longer to field than anticipated.

ULA – a joint launch venture between Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] – Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are each offering clean-sheet rockets for the LSP program, each due to be fielded by 2021. The Air Force released a request for proposals for Phase 2 of LSP in May 2019.

Even with the NSSL cost savings that Roper’s office said that the program has made, “launch remains a significant portion of the U.S. Space Force budget,” according to the Aug. 7 email from Roper’s office. “The NSSL program is charged with launching all National Security Space satellites, which have an increasingly complex requirements set (e.g., non-commercial orbits and payloads) and are funded through multiple classified, RDT&E, and procurement appropriations. Therefore, it is more appropriate to compare the entire NSSL budget against the entirety of these appropriations. For the specific case of U.S. Space Force appropriations (RDT&E and Procurement), the total NSSL budget represents only 13% of the U.S. Space Force budget needed to develop and produce the critical National Security Space capabilities.”