The Air Force’s acquisition czar reiterated April 29 that the service 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 under the NSSL Phase 2 program. While lawmakers and some competitors themselves have advocated for the Air Force to award three contracts, Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told reporters in a teleconference that it was not financially viable.

“In a perfect world, we absolutely would continue with more providers,” he said, adding, “The potential to go beyond that and have a third provider would be great if we had funding.”

The RAND Corp. released a report April 28 dubbed “Assessing the Impact of U.S. Air Force National Security Space Launch Acquisition Decisions: An Independent Analysis of the Global Heavy Lift Launch Market.” The organization analyzed the global heavy lift rocket market, focusing on NSSL-class vehicles and determining the capacity for U.S. launch service providers to fill the U.S. military’s demand between 2020 and 2029.

The report largely concurred with the service’s assessment that support exists for only two launch providers. But it 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 the LSP program in May 2019, and is expected to award contracts this summer.

Selecting three providers could also reduce the potential for foreign competitors, such as Japan or India, to enter the commercial market, the report said.

Roper said Thursday that he agreed with RAND’s assessment that three launch providers would boost global competitiveness for the U.S. industry, but noted that the terms of the Phase 2 procurement agreement allows the Space Force to use legacy systems in the event that new rockets are not flying by 2022.

“Continuing to have access to your legacy systems over the next three years is important,” he said.

He added that if funding were available, he would love to start Phase 3’s research and development phase early, which would help to support the two providers that didn’t win Phase 2 contracts. Phase 3 is currently slated to begin in 2025. “It’s just merely a funding constraint for us,” he said, adding that a decision to push up Phase 3 would have to be made by the Defense Department and the Intelligence Community collectively.

“That sounds like a very good thing to discuss as a whole of government, the importance of having Phase 3 earlier,” said Roper. “And I imagine that the report coming out will trigger that discussion.”

The Air Force in 2018 awarded three launch service agreements (LSAs) to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and ULA to help fund the development of new launch vehicles (Defense Daily, Oct. 10, 2018). ULA could receive up to $967 million in government development funds to help fund its Vulcan Centaur rocket development, while Northrop Grumman would get $792 million for its OmegA launch vehicle, which are both expected to be fielded by 2021. Blue Origin would be awarded up to $500 million to field its New Glenn rocket by 2020.