| WASHINGTON, April 2
WASHINGTON, April 2 U.S. senators on Wednesday
urged the Air Force to allow more competition in the
multibillion-dollar market for launching government satellites,
citing rising costs and concerns about Russian-made engines that
power some of the U.S. rockets.
Lawmakers said the Air Force's budget plan for fiscal 2015
reduced opportunities for privately held Space Exploration
Technologies (SpaceX) and others to gain a foothold in a program
now dominated by the two biggest U.S. weapons makers, Lockheed
Martin Corp and Boeing Co.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein told Air Force officials
it was "unacceptable" to reduce competition while the cost of
the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program were rising
"I'm worried about the costs going up exponentially," she
told a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense
Feinstein and five other senators also sent a letter to
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urging him to ensure that the
launch program allowed competition in fiscal 2015 as planned.
The congressional Government Accountability Office this week
said the cost of each new launch had more than tripled to $420
million as of August 2013, and the total cost of the program was
now projected to reach $70 billion.
Allowing other companies to compete for the launches could
also help resolve growing concerns about a Russian engine used
to power the Atlas V launcher built by the Lockheed-Boeing
venture, the United Launch Alliance, senators said.
Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, who heads the defense
subcommittee, said the Air Force's budget request diminished
opportunities for competition and continued to favor the
Lockheed-Boeing venture, despite concerns about the Russian-made
U.S. dependence on Russian engines has long been a concern
of U.S. lawmakers, but those worries have been heightened after
Russia's seizure of Crimea, an autonomous region in Ukraine.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James told the committee she
also found the reliance on Russian engines "worrisome" and
expected Air Force officials to complete a study of the issue by
late May that would look at alternatives such as possible U.S.
production of the motors, and the likely cost.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh said current
rough estimates showed it would take about five years and $1
billion to start building the engines in the United States.
Both Welsh and James said the Air Force is committed to
opening the launch market to competition, but said new market
entrants needed to prove they could safely launch sensitive
military and intelligence satellites.
James told senators the Air Force was not trying to avoid
competition by postponing orders for some rocket launches until
after fiscal 2019. She said the launches were simply not needed
at the moment since U.S. global positioning satellites were
lasting longer on orbit than expected.
She also questioned the GAO's cost estimate for the program,
and said it may not have factored in savings the Air Force says
it is getting by ordering launches in bulk.
She said the Air Force remained committed to competition,
and expected SpaceX to be certified to compete for certain
launches of lighter satellites by the end of 2014, with
qualification for heavier launches to follow by 2017.
"It had nothing to do with locking someone out of
competition," she said. "The quicker we can get other companies
qualified to compete, the better."
Allison Bryan, a spokeswoman for SpaceX, welcomed the
senators' letter to Hagel. "Increasing fair competition in the
EELV program is a smart decision that would not only improve
efficiency and optimize budgets, but also eliminate America's
reliance on Russian-made engines which, in light of the crisis
in Ukraine, is a direct threat to our nation's security."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)