Senate Approps Says DOD Should Allow Competition in Space Launch, No to ASSIST

Senate Approps Says DOD Should Allow Competition in Space Launch, No to ASSIST

The Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) wasn’t the only military space program of concern to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The appropriators also singled out the need for more competition in the space launch arena for comment, and zeroed a $416 million request for the ASSIST program. The latter is intended to reduce the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) costs of leasing commercial communications satellite capacity.

The committee approved its version of the FY2012 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2219) on Thursday and released the accompanying report (S.Rept. 112-77) yesterday.

The committee said it supports DOD’s plan to buy eight core Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) per year for the next five years in order to “stabilize production capacity and control costs,” but stressed that DOD’s goal really should be to significantly reduce the cost of launch. Competition is the solution, it said. “The Committee intends to examine future budget requests to balance the need to stabilize the EELV industrial base with the need to promote competition. Therefore, [DOD] is urged to retain flexibility with its block-buy acquisition strategy as opportunities for competition by new launch entrants become available.”

SpaceX has made no secret of its desire to offer space launch services to DOD with its existing Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle it plans to develop. On its website, the company asserts that “If allowed to compete, SpaceX can help [DOD] save at least one billion dollars annually in space launch services.”

The committee zeroed DOD’s $416 million request for the Assured SATCOM Services in Single Theater (ASSIST) program (called SATCOM Services Enhancements in the DOD budget request documents). As explained in the committee’s report, under ASSIST, DOD would lease a single commercial communications satellite operating in both the Ka- and Ku-bands instead of leasing capacity on multiple commercial communications satellites as it does now. The Senate appropriators reported that DOD estimated the cost of leasing a new satellite would be paid back in two and a half years “if satellite communications were to continue to be purchased in the same method and volume as they are today.” The committee is skeptical about those assumptions, however. Saying that it had “learned of a number of innovative proposals from commercial providers,” it zeroed the request, which is part of the Defense-Wide Procurement account. Instead, it recommended that DOD conduct an Analysis of Alternatives of how best to meet its satellite communications needs.

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