Air Force shifting to commercial space products


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In order to save money and speed development, the Air Force is shifting its policy from building all its own space products to buying them from commercial companies.

The desire to leverage more commercial technology came after the Army concluded that a pre-planned modernization path would have taken until 2032 to complete, and ultimately would have cost more than desired, James Mingus, director of the Army’s Mission Command Center of Excellence, said Oct. 10 at the Association of the United States Army conference here. “We are going to halt programs that are not sufficiently, or cannot be sufficiently remedied; we are going to fix those programs we need to be able to “fight tonight,” and then we are going to pivot to an ‘adapt and buy’ approach,” he said.

Being able to “fight tonight” means maintaining the necessary telecommunications infrastructure to engage in combat at a moment’s notice. Beyond keeping that capability steady, the Army wants to apply commercial solutions, which Mingus said “probably meet the majority” of the Army’s needs.

This process began when SpaceX forced the Air Force to open up its launch bids to competition. It has continued as commercial space has shown itself to be fast and innovative and capable of meeting the Air Force’s needs quickly and cheaply. It has probably been accelerated again by the Trump administration itself. In the end, by trusting private enterprise to provide the Air Force what it needs, the country’s economy will grow, and it will do so efficiently, while the government will save money and get what it needs, sooner.

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9 comments

  • mkent

    Huh? This is about the Army buying commercial space communications products like mobile satellite dishes, routing switches, and service stacking software. It has nothing to do with the Air Force, launch systems, or SpaceX.

    The process began a long time ago, way before SpaceX. The military has been using commercial launch vehicles for satellite launches since 1989. Most new non-NRO military satellite hardware is based on commercial technology. The WGS satellites are based on the Boeing 702 bus, and the MUOS and AEHF satellites are based on the Lockheed A2100 bus. The next-generation wideband and narrowband “systems” will likely not be satellite buys at all. Instead, they’ll likely be bandwidth purchases from commercial satellite networks.

    And why bring SpaceX into the conversation at all? They had nothing to do with the article in question. Not surprising, since they’re still a fairly small player in the commercial space arena.

  • mkent: The Air Force might have been buying commercial space material before SpaceX, but its overall approach to acquisitions was generally hostile to the idea of competition and new companies. This is why SpaceX had to sue them to get them to ease their bidding rules so the company could even bid. In following this story for years, it is my impression that the Air Force has undergone a major change in philosophy in the past five years, becoming more willing to consider competition and new companies, and much of that change parallels the pressure from SpaceX and its success.

  • mkent

    “This is why SpaceX had to sue them to get them to ease their bidding rules so the company could even bid.”

    To the contrary, the Air Force bent over backwards to bring SpaceX into the military launch business, in violation of their own rules.

    EELV program rules require a potential launch provider to be able to meet all program requirements before being allowed to perform any launches. ULA must follow that rule, but SpaceX doesn’t. There are many payloads that SpaceX can’t launch and requirements that they can’t meet, but they are allowed to bid on launches anyway.

    And note that all of the military launches that the Falcon 9 has conducted thus far were sole-sourced to SpaceX. ULA was not even allowed to bid on them.

    Again, most military launches since 1989 have been on commercial vehicles, and the Air Force has been pushing competition in the launch industry since the mid 1990s, before SpaceX was even founded.

    All of which has nothing to do with the article in question.

  • ken anthony

    most military launches since 1989 have been on commercial vehicles

    May be true, but sidesteps the point of an anti-free market position which is loosening do to competition and court actions. Pointing at airforce actions contrary to the premise just means the AF is somewhat at odds with itself.

  • Edward

    mkent,
    You wrote: “And note that all of the military launches that the Falcon 9 has conducted thus far were sole-sourced to SpaceX. ULA was not even allowed to bid on them.

    Actually, this is not a true statement. ULA refused to bid on one launch, because they believed that they could not cost-effectively change their operations in a way that met the contract requirements; this was not a sole source contract in the way that you mean the term. The first time an Air Force launch was bid by both ULA and SpaceX, the latter was able to be the low bidder. SpaceX’s operations are so much more efficient that they can easily underbid many other launch vehicles.

    https://www.theverge.com/2017/3/15/14928638/spacex-signs-us-military-contract-over-ula-gps-iii-satellite
    [the third GPS III is] the second time that SpaceX has won a launch contract from the military, but it’s the first time that the company competed with ULA for the gig. SpaceX received certification to launch military satellites in 2015 and then won its first Air Force launch contract in April 2016: a contract valued at $87.2 million to launch the military’s second GPS-III satellite. However, SpaceX essentially won the contract by default, since ULA — the only other launch provider certified to launch Air Force satellites — declined to bid for it.

    You, mkent, may be mistaking the lack of an announced bidding session for the latest X-37 launch as meaning that SpaceX never competed with ULA for launches. The reports are vague on the purchasing process for this launch, so this launch may have been sole sourced; however, I do not know why that would be. Alternatively, it could just be that the bidding process was not announced and never explained.

    https://spaceflightnow.com/2017/06/06/u-s-air-force-taps-spacex-to-launch-next-x-37b-spaceplane-mission/
    But the rocket contract for the fifth X-37B mission was not listed in a roster of planned competitive space launch procurements provided by Air Force officials in recent months.

    Competition in national security launches is paying off in lower launch prices:
    ‘We had a huge problem in the 1990s with access to space, and the country, at that time, made a significant investment in space capability, and the ability to launch, and it paid off and is showing results,’ Wilson said. ‘The benefit now is that we’re seeing competition, and it’s bringing the price down for access to space.’

    mkent,
    You wrote: “most military launches since 1989 have been on commercial vehicles, and the Air Force has been pushing competition in the launch industry since the mid 1990s, before SpaceX was even founded.

    I have a problem with these statements, too.

    It may be true that the vehicles that the Air Force used since 1989 were also used for commercial launches, but virtually all of them were launchers that were designed for and owned by the Air Force. Any Pegasus and other Orbital Sciences launches would be the only exceptions, the only commercial vehicles, after the Space Shuttle stopped taking satellites to orbit. The Space Shuttle had almost completely killed the US launch vehicle industry, which is why Wilson said, “‘We had a huge problem in the 1990s with access to space.” They only had legacy Atlas, Delta, and Titan rockets, all being Air Force rockets.

    The EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) program was specifically Air Force. Boeing and Lockheed may have been intended to be competitors, but the two rockets that the Air Force agreed to buy were of differing capabilities and did not compete with each other.

    ULA was formed in order to reduce the cost of launching the Delta VI by sharing resources with the Atlas team. ULA was then given sole source privileges on Air Force launch contracts. This is the opposite of pushing competition in the launch industry.

    This non-competitive arrangement with ULA was somewhat well received until the price of the Russian engine started rising, then the detractors to the arrangement started being heard. Russia’s invasion of The Ukraine made matters even worse.

  • mkent

    “And note that all of the military launches that the Falcon 9 has conducted thus far were sole-sourced to SpaceX.”

    “Actually, this is not a true statement.”

    Actually, it is a true statement.

    The Falcon 9 has conducted three military missions: DSCOVR, NROL-76, and OTV-5. None of these missions was competed.

    DSCOVR was launched under the OSP-3 program and awarded sole-source to SpaceX as a pathfinding mission, and Tory Bruno himself has stated that ULA was not allowed to compete for L-76 or OTV-5.

    “SpaceX’s operations are so much more efficient that they can easily underbid many other launch vehicles.”

    They are more efficient at least in part because they do not need to meet all of the requirements of the EELV program. As they’ve met more of the requirements, SpaceX’s cost has increased. If they had to meet all of them, their costs would most likely approach that of ULA’s.

    “It may be true that the vehicles that the Air Force used since 1989 were also used for commercial launches, but virtually all of them were launchers that were designed for and owned by the Air Force.”

    Incorrect. Only Titan II and Titan IV were owned by the Air Force. Pegasus, Delta II, Atlas II, Atlas III, Delta IV, and Atlas V were owned by Orbital Sciences, McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, respectively (now Orbital ATK and ULA).

    “The EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) program was specifically Air Force. ”

    The EELV program was and is Air Force, but the Delta IV and Atlas V are ULA. Launching satellites under the EELV program no more makes Delta IV and Atlas V Air Force than does launching a satellite under OSP-3 make Falcon 9 Air Force.

    “…but the two rockets that the Air Force agreed to buy were of differing capabilities and did not compete with each other. ”

    The could and did compete with each other. EELV Buy 1 was 28 launches and competed. EELV Buy 2 was sole-sourced to Lockheed because of the espionage scandal but could have been competed on technical merits. Buy 3 was allocated as the bridge to ULA, but all but the payloads requiring a Heavy could have been competed.

    “ULA was formed in order to reduce the cost of launching the Delta VI by sharing resources with the Atlas team.”

    ULA was formed in order to keep Delta IV flying Heavy and West Coast launches after the Boeing industrial espionage scandal and related lawsuits threatened to take that vehicle off the market. The Air Force was going to be faced with a monopoly provider regardless, but having one that couldn’t launch Heavies or any payloads at all into polar orbits was certainly the worse option. Plus nobody wanted all of the shenanigans happening under the early EELV program to come out, least of all the Air Force.

  • Edward

    mkent,
    You wrote: “Actually, it is a true statement.

    Since I gave you an example of where you are most definitely wrong, the third GPS III satellite, it is still not a true statement. Not only was ULA allowed to bid on the second GPS III satellite, the fact that it chose to refuse to do so angered the Air Force and got it into a bit of trouble with Congress, who were upset that the intended competition turned out to be not so competitive.

    DSCOVR is a NOAA probe, not a military one, and NROL-76 is a NRO satellite, which is only military if you consider the CIA to still be military, because both are organized under the DoD while expected to be civil, reporting to the Director of National Intelligence.

    They are more efficient at least in part because they do not need to meet all of the requirements of the EELV program.

    Well, duh. That is the benefit of being commercial rather than government-dependent.

    “Incorrect. Only Titan II and Titan IV were owned by the Air Force.”

    Now you are confusing the operator with the owner. The Air Force owns the designs and the companies are essentially licensed to build them; the Air Force has the option to change manufacturers, but that is not a realistic option, as so few American companies have the capability to build such large rockets. The contractors are only the manufacturers and operators, not the owners. The Air Force still oversees the manufacture. ULA is not a commercial rocket company, but it will launch commercial payloads.

    The EELV plan was for the rocket operations to be “like” commercial operations, but even that didn’t work out. You may be confusing the launch of commercial satellites as being the same as the launchers also being commercial. Although there were intentions for post Shuttle launches to be commercial, it was not until the COTS program, started in 2006, that commercial launchers really began to succeed, Orbital Sciences being the only successful commercial company, and it only did smaller payloads until COTS.

  • mkent

    “Since I gave you an example of where you are most definitely wrong, the third GPS III satellite, it is still not a true statement.”

    Huh? No GPS III satellite has ever launched. The first GPS III satellite was just declared ready for launch within the past week or two and won’t actually launch until next year.

    “DSCOVR is a NOAA probe, not a military one, and NROL-76 is a NRO satellite…”

    DSCOVR may be a NOAA probe, but it was launched by the Air Force. The DSCOVR launch was bought and managed under the OSP-3 contract between SpaceX and the U. S. Air Force. The NROL launches are similarly bought and managed under the Air Force EELV program.

    “Well, duh. That is the benefit of being commercial rather than government-dependent.”

    So you concede that the Air Force is favoring SpaceX by waiving requirements for them that must be met by ULA? And that, as a result, SpaceX is less expensive than ULA?

    “Now you are confusing the operator with the owner.”

    No, I am not.

    “The Air Force owns the designs and the companies are essentially licensed to build them…”

    No, they do not. ULA, not the Air Force, owns the designs to the Delta II, Delta IV, and Atlas V. Orbital ATK owns the design of the Pegasus. Boeing owned the design of the Delta III, and Lockheed Martin owned the design of the Atlas II and Atlas III, those three all since retired. These rockets were designed, built, assembled, and launched by their respective companies. The Air Force merely purchased a ride on them to a particular orbit.

    “the Air Force has the option to change manufacturers”

    No, they don’t.

    ” ULA is not a commercial rocket company”

    ULA is as commercial as SpaceX. They own the IP of their launch vehicles, build them, and launch them. Same as SpaceX.

    You SpaceX fanboys really need to learn the state of the space industry, both now and especially in the past. It didn’t all start with SpaceX.

  • Edward

    mkent,
    You wrote: “No, I am not.

    Well, that settles it then. [Oops, sarcasm alert.]

    You SpaceX fanboys really need to learn the state of the space industry, both now and especially in the past.

    And now you expose yourself. You have a bias that cannot be overcome with any amount of reality.

    You tried to change the subject several times, once by pretending that a contracted launch was confused for a completed launch. Nice try, but that does not make your statement any more true than it was before.

    You succeeded in changing the subject with DSCOVR and OSP-3. That is on me for falling for your ruse.

    Apparently I did not make clear that commercial space started with Orbital Sciences, but where it all started is another attempt to distract from the topic at hand, so I am giving myself a pass on missing that (apparently suddenly important) point.

    Whether the Air Force favored SpaceX is also beside the point. That ULA chose to make a reasonable bid the next time around suggests that there was less favoritism than you pretend existed.

    By the way, it is I who continually links to the ULA’s CisLunar 1000 video and occasionally explains that ULA’s unusual arrangement with the Air Force does not constitute subsidization. ULA may have future problems competing for launch transportation contracts, but they seem to be positioning themselves to provide in-space CisLunar transportation. The company has vision and a future and seems sure to be a major player in the expansion into space.

    Apparently, by your definition, mkent, I am also a “fanboy” of ULA.

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