A United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Medium rocket launches in 2012 with the third Global Positioning System IIF satellite. (Air Force)
WASHINGTON — A Senate committee is holding up a plan to shift $100 million to an Air Force space-launch program, telling the service to devise a plan for a new liquid rocket engine.
The debate over the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program is just one piece of a massive Pentagon request to reprogram fiscal 2014 funds within and among a myriad of accounts.
Such requests must be approved by each of the four congressional defense committees, and so far, the EELV proposal has won the support of only two. The Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee and the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee have green-lighted the plan, while the House and Senate Armed Services committees have deferred approval, according to budget documents dated July 25 and July 31, obtained by Defense News.
SASC asked the Air Force to draw up a plan, by Sept. 30, “that leads to the production of a liquid rocket engine by 2019,” according to one of the documents, sent to Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord by SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.
In recent years, lawmakers and government auditors have raised concerns about costs in the EELV program. Earlier this year, Air Force and Pentagon officials told lawmakers that they were saving $4 billion through the program’s latest contract.
But some senators still have questions. On July 16, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., asked Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), about a federal acquisition guidelines waiver that led to overruns.
“With the waiver, the government didn't have the type of underlying costs and pricing data on critical pieces, like the engines, that it needed to make good negotiations, especially as it was going to commit to a large span of time under the block buy,” Chaplain told Udall during a joint hearing of SASC’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
“So without that kind of data, and if you're in a sole-source environment, you're really crippled in terms of your negotiating position,” she said. “If there's a competitive environment, it might not be such an issue, because the competition itself can drive down prices.”
To that end, the Air Force recently opened the space-launch program to competition for the first time in a decade, issuing a request for proposals on July 15. It was a blow to United Launch Alliance, a joint effort of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which has held a monopoly on EELV launches.