U.S. Space Force Facing Increased Risk of Launch Problems, DoD IG Says

The U.S. Space Force is facing an increased risk of launch problems at its eastern range at Patrick Space Force Base, Fla., and the western range at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., as the service expects to more than double its launches from 49 last year to 157 in 2027, the Pentagon Inspector General said in a newly released audit.

The latter examined launches between January 2018 and March last year.

“While the Space Force maintained launch range items and supported space launch requirements, the Space Force is at an increased risk that aging range items with obsolete components could limit launch capacity on the eastern and western ranges,” the report said. “The Space Force projects that the total number of launches it will support will increase 220 percent by 2027. This increased operational tempo, combined with a lack of spare parts for mission critical range item components increases the possibility that a non-mission capable range item will cause a launch hold or scrub. Furthermore, launch delays could occur on the eastern and western ranges if range items remain in a non-mission capable status for an extended period.”

RGNext, a Raytheon Technologies [RTX] and General Dynamics [GD] joint venture based in Melbourne, Fla., is the holder of a Space Force Launch and Test Range System Integrated Support Contract (LISC). The latter, awarded in September 2014 and worth up to $2 billion, is to support launches at the eastern and western ranges.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond said more than two years ago that he wants Space Force to move to all autonomous launch operations by 2025 (Defense Daily, Dec. 17, 2020).

Raymond cited the all-autonomous launches of SpaceX rockets and the need to reduce space launch infrastructure and personnel to increase launch location flexibility, launch frequency, and reduce costs.

By Oct. 1, 2025, launch providers using the Space Force eastern and western ranges are to adopt a rocket-mounted Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS) to track and, if necessary, terminate a rocket launch. Space Force is moving to AFSS under the Range of the Future 2028 initiative that will permit launch providers to user their own instrumentation, rather than Space Force range items.

Space Force is planning to finish upgrading the eastern and western ranges before 2024.

“Although the Space Force maintained range items and enabled successful launches, according to Space Force data, 74 of all 260 (28 percent) items at the eastern and western ranges did not have the spare parts needed to repair or replace some range item components if necessary,” the Pentagon IG audit said. “This amount included 31 range items that did not have any spare parts for mission-critical range item components. The Space Force lacked spare parts for the 74 range items because many of the spares were obsolete.”

Of the 31 range items without space parts for mission-critical components, the Space Force has upgraded four range items and secured funding for upgrades to another nine, while the service is awaiting funding for one range item upgrade, relying on redundant systems for four range items, and plans to divest 18 range items, the DoD audit said.