McCain and Air Force question ULA military arrangement


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On Wednesday, the military arrangement between the Air Force and ULA came under strong attack.

First, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) introduced a bill in Congress that would re-instate the ban on ULA’s use of Russian engines in the Atlas 5 rocket. The ban had been lifted when Senators Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) snuck language doing so into the giant omnibus budget bill in December.

Second, at a hearing in the Senate on Wednesday, Air Force, under attack by Senator McCain for its sweetheart deal which gives ULA $800 million annually whether or not it launches anything regardless, admitted that it is thinking of terminating that deal early.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a Wednesday hearing the service is considering early termination of the current EELV Launch Capability (ELC) contract, a unique arrangement set up in 2006 to fund the cost of maintaining ULA launch infrastructure. At the time, the arrangement made sense because ULA was the Pentagon’s sole source for military space launch. “I was very surprised and disappointed when ULA did not bid on a recent GPS competitive launch opportunity,” James said. “And given the fact that there are taxpayer dollars involved with this ELC arrangement I just described to you, I’ve asked my legal team to review what could be done about this.”

The McCain bill is not likely to pass. However, the pressure he is putting on the Air Force, combined with the renewed and cheaper competition being offered by SpaceX, could very well lead to the ending of ULA’s EELV deal.

I expect to see a similar scenario play out in connection with Orion/SLS sometime in the next two years. When SpaceX and others begin to fly manned capsules and big rockets for relatively little money, our elected officials are eventually going to notice how much more expensive that bloated government program is, even as it doesn’t accomplish much. Some of them will suddenly realize the political advantage in attacking SLS, and begin to do so.

One comment

  • mkent

    et tu Robert?

    The ban had been lifted when Senators Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) and Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) snuck language doing so into the giant omnibus budget bill in December.

    They didn’t sneak anything in. They announced it to the world

    sweetheart deal which gives ULA $800 million annually whether or not it launches anything

    Unlike SpaceX, which didn’t launch anything at all in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2011 and didn’t launch anything successfully in 2006 or 2007, ULA has never had an extended time of not launching payloads. Ever. The lowest number of launches they’ve performed in any calendar year was seven in 2008, equal to the highest number of launches SpaceX has ever done in a calendar year (except ULA’s were all successful; SpaceX’s weren’t). In fact, 2008 and 2015 were the only years in ULA’s history that they didn’t perform at least as many launches as SpaceX and Ariane combined.

    And SpaceX will be eligible for the same ELC payments ULA gets when they start launching military payloads. (ELC will likely go away for both companies, but whatever happens, the USAF has said both companies will be treated the same.)

    However, the pressure he is putting on the Air Force, combined with the renewed and cheaper competition being offered by SpaceX, could very well lead to the ending of ULA’s EELV deal.

    And if that comes to pass, what a horrible thing for our servicemen, who rely on the payloads ULA’s EELVs put into orbit for their very lives. There is no one else who can launch most of the payloads ULA carries. If not for ULA, the payloads would be stuck on the ground.

    PS: I just realized this site doesn’t have a preview button in its comments section. My apologies if the html doesn’t come out right.

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