Congressional Hubris Has No Place in Defense Policy

This week, the House-Senate conference committee is concluding negotiations on the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. While several issues need addressing, the Air Force is rightfully most concerned about Section 1615 of the House bill, a provision that would prevent the Pentagon from meeting national security objectives.

Presumably, one member inputted this section with the explicit intent to shield established manufacturers from future competitors. Although there are only three major launch systems currently in use by the federal government, Section 1615 will stop the Air Force from helping any further on the development of new launch systems – even on ones where nearly all funding comes from the private sector. If signed into law, Congress would mandate that they spend their allocated budget only on parts like engine development, as well as modifications to existing launch vehicles.

The Air Force finds cost-share partnerships on the launch system level to be important because the Atlas V, one of the only two main launch vehicles utilized by the government, is dependent upon Russian made RD-180 engines for the first stage of launch – engines that the government is supposed to stop using in five years because of current political hostilities.

Last week, Space News reported that Claire Leon, the director of the Launch Enterprise Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, is “hopeful that they’ll tweak the language,” because if not, she believes that her office will have to “redo the RFP that’s already [been] released,” delaying the restriction on utilizing the Russian RD-180.

Leon’s concerns are valid and should be taken seriously by the Conference Committee. Some pundits argue that a new launch system is not necessary because the government is already investing in cost-share partnerships to develop new first-stage engines. Even if they were correct, that does not mean Congress should dictate to the Air Force how it spends its allocated budget; however, it does not seem that they are.

In testimony, senior Pentagon staffers cautioned against funding only one piece of the puzzle. They said in January 2016 that replacing the RD-180 with a new engine would lead to significant cost increases just to make the Atlas V functional, and even with those added costs, the Atlas would require recertification. In short, restricting launch system development will likely reduce competition, and as a result, our national security will suffer.

Since the Falcon 9 is unable to meet the requirements for approximately 50 percent of National Security Space launches, this means that without a new launch system, the government will likely resort to either: heavily using the Delta IV, another launch system produced by United Launch Alliance, that the Air Force wrote is 30 percent more expensive than its peers; or do as the Air Force predicts and delay the 2022 restrictions on using the RD-180, thus prolonging U.S. dependence on Russian rockets.

No member of Congress should be able to look their constituents in the eye and defend their support for this policy, which clearly runs against our best national security interests.

Last Thursday, Air Force Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson said he is “not convinced that we will have those political restrictions” in the final bill. The presence of Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, on the conference committee should bring some comfort to Thompson and his colleagues, as he already criticized the policy implications of Section 1615 in a Dear Colleague letter to Secretary Mattis in April. The coalition of members said that “investing in the entire launch system … is the fastest, safest, and most affordable way” to achieve policymakers’ objectives.

As Leon said, “[The Air Force would] like to be given requirements, not told how to do them.” Section 1615 is the equivalent of Congress not only writing health care policy, but also telling consumers which doctor to go to; it is unfounded.

Hopefully, understanding conferees like Smith will share this important point of view with conference committee colleagues such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), as well as Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) to ensure that our national security remains adequately protected.

Phil Kiver, a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and former member of the Washington Army National Guard, is a doctoral candidate in strategic studies at Henley-Putnam University.

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