Some of you must remember the Army’s Future Combat System (FCS), the massive program that was going to develop and deploy new combat brigades built around a system of some 18 brand new manned and unmanned air and ground platforms with state-of-the-art sensors, computers, radios and weapons. All the vehicles in the FCS program were going to be sufficiently light so as to be airlifted on C-130s but nevertheless have the force protection, mobility and firepower necessary to engage in high intensity conflict. Begun in 2003, the FCS vision slowly eroded as system after system proved either unachievable or unaffordable. Simply put, the program was too ambitious, too complex, too risky, too expensive, with too many moving parts, including defense companies and government agencies. Finally, after the Army had expended some $18 billion, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates mercifully killed the program in 2009. He did preserve some of the money programmed for the FCS to support development by the Army of an advanced armored fighting platform, the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV). Unfortunately, despite significant technological progress, ballooning weight and cost necessitated terminating the GCV in 2014. Having spent tens of billions of dollars and wasted more than a decade, today the U.S. Army has no program to design and develop a truly new armored fighting vehicle.
The Air Force may be heading for its own “FCS moment” as it struggles to get its premier space launch project, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), back on track. Begun in the 1990s, the EELV program uses two launch vehicles, the Delta IV and Atlas V, operated by a single launch services provider, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), to provide assured access to space for critical military and intelligence payloads. What started out as a relatively straightforward change – develop a domestic first stage rocket engine to replace the Russian built RD-180 for the Atlas V by 2019 – is turning into a complicated, Rube Goldberg-like effort involving an intensifying fight between competing launch services providers, multiple potential developers of replacement engines (some with totally untested technologies), ill-defined public-private partnerships to provide funding for the effort and, most recently, a proposal from ULA to retire the Atlas V and design an entirely new launch vehicle.
Like the Army experience in the FCS program, the Air Force appears to be losing control over its ability to provide assured access to space. One of the Army’s problems was that it delegated the management and direction of the FCS effort to two private companies, called large system integrators.
Similarly, the Air Force seems to have abdicated its responsibilities for oversight and direction of the EELV program, allowing the current monopoly provider, ULA, to call many of the shots. SpaceX had to file suit against the Air Force in order to force its way into contention for the launch of national security payloads. Initially both ULA and the Air Force opposed Congress’s insistence that the EELV program wean itself off of Russian engines as expeditiously as possible. While the Air Force professed to be agnostic with respect to possible offerings to replace the RD-180, it didn’t even blink when ULA went ahead and signed an agreement with a Jeff Bezos company, Blue Origin which was developing a methane/LOX engine, that might serve as the replacement but really is best suited to power an entirely new launch vehicle. Blue Origin is reported to be paying for the development of the new rocket engine, money that neither the Air Force or ULA have to spend. But that is hardly a good reason for ULA to team up with a prospective engine candidate ahead of the competition to replace the RD-180. Moreover, ULA plans to retire the Delta IV, the only other heavy lift space launch vehicle and is now making noises about wanting to replace the Atlas V with an entirely new system. It is increasingly unclear who is really running the EELV program, the contractor or the Air Force.
The Air Force had every reason to like the old EELV program. It just bought launch services and did so from a single vendor, one that had an extremely good track record. The relationship was easy, oversight was simple and the Air Force didn’t have to deal with the nitty gritty details such as whose engines were on the Atlas V.
But the old days are gone. The Air Force faces some new challenges in acquiring assured access to space. Reliance on the RD-180s needs to end. But this doesn’t mean that the entire program should be allowed to unravel. The simple solution is for the Air Force to conduct a full and open competition for a replacement engine, one that will fit on the Atlas V with the least amount of integration work, and hold off on retiring the Delta IV until the re-engined Atlas V is demonstrated. Then, if the Air Force or some public-private consortium wants to develop an entirely new heavy launch vehicle, similar to the way SpaceX says it plans to do with its Falcon 9 Heavy, fine. But the Air Force leadership really needs to get a grip before it has an “FCS moment” and the nation loses assured access to space.
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