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Report: U.S. Air Force To Extend EELV Program

ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy currently is the biggest and most expensive rocket in the Air Force’s EELV fleet. Credit: ULA photo

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force plans to spend $21 billion from 2020 through 2030 to sustain and modernize its fleet of satellite launchers, according to a Pentagon report released May 23.

The money is part of a roughly $35 billion projected funding wedge that would extend the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program from 2018 through 2028 with the addition of 60 launches, the report said. That would bring the total number of EELV launches to 151 at a cost of some $70 billion, the report said.

The new cost and procurement projections were part of a small section of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Selected Acquisition Report submitted to Congress for the December 2012 reporting period. Some of the EELV-related aspects of the report remained murky at press time.

The Air Force is negotiating the purchase of up to 36 rocket cores over five years from the incumbent EELV contractor, United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Denver, and plans to competitively award an additional 14 missions to give newcomers like Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) a crack at winning Pentagon business. These launches are separate from the 60 additional missions cited in the Selected Acquisition Report, according to Maj. Eric Badger, an Air Force spokesman.

In a written response to questions, Badger was less clear about how the Air Force would spend the $21 billion in “life extension” funding, saying the money would cover the cost of launches and infrastructure through 2030. Typically life extension funding goes to investments necessary to sustain a program over time, such as replacement of obsolete technology.

The report said the life extension funding was directed in U.S. Space Command’s Strategic Master Plan but provided no additional details. Contacted at press time May 24, Andy Roake, a spokesman for Space Command, said a copy of that report was not immediately available.

It was unclear at press time how the projected funding, either for the 60 additional launches or the EELV life extension, might be divvied up among which providers. Though its ambitions in the U.S. military launch market are well known, SpaceX’s vehicles, current and planned, have yet to be certified to carry U.S. national security payloads.

In a written response to questions, ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said the company is “honored and humbled” that the Pentagon plans to extend the EELV program for 10 more years. “Over the last six years, ULA has demonstrated a year-over-year record of reducing costs and is encouraged by the U.S. government’s innovative new acquisition strategy of buying launch vehicles efficiently based on the needs outlined in the president’s budget request,” the statement said.

Elon Musk, chief executive of Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, said his company can save the Pentagon more than a $1 billion per year in launch costs with its Falcon family of rockets. “Falcon Heavy can carry satellites that weigh up to twice as much as Delta 4 Heavy, so there is the opportunity to do bigger satellites or multi-satellite flights,” Musk said in a statement.

ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy currently is the biggest and most expensive rocket in the Air Force’s EELV fleet.

The EELV program’s projected costs have soared during the last decade, prompting lawmakers to call for competition in a business that has effectively been a ULA monopoly. The Air Force’s strategy for bringing down the program costs is a combination of buying in bulk from ULA and bringing in new entrants via competitively awarded missions.

According to the EELV data contained in the Selected Acquisition Report, the $35 billion total price tag associated with the 10-year EELV program extension reflect “cost saving methodologies implemented in the revised contracting strategy, to include incentivizing the contractor, enabling the government to implement cost cutting initiatives during technical evaluations and contract negotiations,  improving insight into the contractors’ costs, and enforcing better cost management.”

The report assigned a roughly $16 million price tag to the additional 60 missions, but it was unclear how the projected $21 billion in life extension funding factors into the equation.

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