Is Elon Musk Undercutting National Security?

Earlier this week, former congressman Ron Paul, an Air Force veteran, penned an op-ed for Fox News denouncing Congress' hidden agenda in pushing forward Section 1615 of the National Defense Authorization Agreement (NDAA). The bill language in Section 1615 is cloaked with the appearance it would eliminate U.S. dependence on Russian rocket technology, however, the bill instead would be weakening the Air Force by cutting off all competition in the aerospace industry, creating a monopoly benefitting only one company, Elon Musk's SpaceX.  

Not surprisingly, Paul's op-ed has ruffled a few feathers in the military-industrial complex, and a few have even gone so far as to accuse him of being in the pockets of defense contractors. But as one may expect, Doctor Paul falls on the right side of the issue. 

Currently, there are only two competitive companies the Air Force can employ for the use of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV), a military satellite launch program used by the U.S. Air Force intended to assure access to space for the U.S. government. They are the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. 

There is one major difference between the two companies: ULA uses and relies on the Russian-made RD-180 engines for the first stage of launch, while SpaceX does not.  

And now due to tense political relations between Russia and the United States in recent years, the U.S. government will completely phase out the use of RD-180 engines within a few years, which means if new launch vehicles are not developed, SpaceX will soon have the entire industry all to itself in one growth-killing, government-created monopoly. 

One problem though, the U.S. government is not currently equipped nor ready to altogether jettison the Russian-made engines, and certainly do not have the necessary backup resources to do so. The SpaceX-made engines severely lack in comparison to its Russian counterpart, and cannot "reach four of the eight critical military orbits".  Defense Secretary Ashton Carter even admits that currently the Pentagon has no other alternative than to use the RD-180 engines for the safety of our country. This will change because of the private partnerships moved forward by the government to develop new, American-made engines. However, if Section 1615, which prevents the funding of new launch vehicles, becomes the law of the land, these engines will do nothing to preserve competition.

Critics argue these motors will ensure the current RD-180-dependent launch vehicle remains in the marketplace. This argument could not be further from the truth, and analysts have said so on multiple occasions.  

For example, former Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall and former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee  James told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that “any effort to simply replace the RD-180 with a substitute engine would require extensive design and engineering changes, as well as significant dynamic and acoustic testing, and would ultimately result in a new launch system, which would require recertification.” In other words, the only realistic procurement option left would be SpaceX’s Falcon 9. 

In conjunction with the government-built SpaceX monopoly and the occasional inefficiencies of the company's end-to-end space launch services, it is extremely troubling considering how important launch vehicles are to United States’ self-defense, diplomatic endeavors, and conflict deterrent operations. In the words of the National Science and Technology Council, “access to and use of space is central for preserving peace and protecting U.S. national security." 

Politics aside, everyone's goal here should be to preserve peace as well as ensure national security, and the Pentagon has been clear: at this time, “the Department cannot depend entirely on only one source for critical national security satellites." Which is why U.S. law currently mandates "the availability of at least two space launch vehicles." 

The irony here is that SpaceX was once -- and to some extent, still is -- a victim of similar political gimmicks. Up until 2014, there was far less progress in spaceflight because the government was relying on a single provider, ULA. That is, until SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force, forcing a settlement outside of court and granting a multibillion-dollar contract with the company. Since then, SpaceX has come in and shook things up, lowering costs and greatly advancing the nation's technological progress.  

Over the past several years, SpaceX has sent large donations to both Republicans and Democrats, most likely to advance its legislative priorities. A favorite target of theirs is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Senate Chairman of the United States Committee on Armed Services, donating to both the McCain Institute and his political campaigns. With over 70 percent of SpaceX's funding supported by the government, it is glaringly obvious why it is willing to support any and every candidate, especially the ones with the most influence.  

However, SpaceX does not just provide funds to politicians -- it has even gone to the next level of political maneuvering by paying lobbying firms directly, for the advancement of its interests related to past NDAAs

No matter what military industrial complex talking heads might say, Doctor Paul is right on the mark; Section 1615 is just another congressional shell game, shuffling procurement money around to please those with the best Washington lobbyists. Those who support aerospace privatization should not support Section 1615. Rather, they should eliminate government's involvement in engines, launch vehicles, and all aspects of space launch systems all at once. 

However, even if Congress passes this NDAA provision, there is a lot to be optimistic about: one company is working on producing a new, privately-funded EELV to beat Congress at its own game. Special interests may win the battle this time, but they won't win the war in the years to come. It's time for a new race to space.  

Jillian Lane Wyant is a media consultant and former Press Secretary for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)