NDAA Shakeup Is a Shakedown for America's National Security

America recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. That event served to establish America’s preeminence in the space frontier and to declare to the world that, according to President John F. Kennedy, “This new ocean will be a sea of peace” instead of a “terrifying theater of war.” As we look back on this event with pride, we should also confront the fact that today our preeminence in space is quickly becoming science fiction.

Having ceded the edge in rocket development years ago, the U.S. is now on track to compromise its preeminence in space even further with partisan battles and special interests. The latest example is the House’s party-line passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on July 12, which includes costly and wasteful provisions despite warnings from the United States Air Force.

President Trump has threatened to veto the NDAA if it comes across his desk in its current form. While the president has expressed dismay at the extent of the defense spending cuts, at the heart of the White House’s objections lies the substantial changes to America’s space program.

A critical aspect of the country’s national security, the Air Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program was established in 1994 as our nation’s strategy to acquire cost-effective, superior space launch capabilities. It is currently the primary method for placing U.S. military satellites into orbit.

Currently, NSSL relies on the RD-180, a rocket engine managed by a Russian state-owned entity. Congress, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, has since required that NSSL abandon its dependence on Russian technology by 2022. The NSSL is the initiative used to facilitate the U.S. transition from foreign dependence to self-sufficiency. The program is vitally important, but the current version of the NDAA threatens to derail the initiative’s progress.

One House change in Section 1601 of the NDAA, dubbed by many as the “SpaceX earmark,” reflects House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith’s (D-WA) apparent desire to protect SpaceX. The earmark will hand $500 million to companies that failed to win a Launch Service Agreement (LSA) in the program’s first phase but are chosen for such contracts in the second round. In reality, though, SpaceX alone would qualify for the purse, as it is the only Phase 2 bidder that didn’t make the first cut.

Shamelessly enriching a top campaign contributor with its own NDAA earmark is bad enough. Unfortunately, the Air Force and White House object Section 1601 would also “increase mission risk for the nation’s national security satellites.”

To SpaceX’s benefit, Section 1601 would further mandate that the Air Force reopen competition for launch contracts after 29 missions instead of 34. This “dramatically increases cost for all missions” and “damages multiple providers’ business cases and return on investment calculations,” according to an Air Force memo responding to Smith’s proposed changes.

To some, setting aside a pot of gold for the billionaire-founded little guy SpaceX may seem like a way to drive down overall costs through competition, but the Air Force disagrees. According to Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Launch Systems Enterprise Directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, the Air Force does not have the resources to manage LSAs with more than two suppliers due to the costs associated with integration.

The mandate to reopen competition would also exacerbate program delays and risk. Since each launch service provider is unique in terms of its capabilities and limitations, the Air Force must adapt its schedule and technology to meet the needs of the provider. The Air Force would have no effective way to engage in long-term planning because it would be forced to restructure the program before completion. The NDAA would add too many variables to the NSSL equation, making it impossible for the Air Force to operate with the required precision to protect America’s national security.

If Section 1601 is passed into law, the Air Force could find itself unable to meet Congress’s demands. This could result in lengthy delays to the NSSL program and effectively end the Air Force’s activity in space by the congressionally mandated deadline of 2022.

Congress should reject 1601 as a national security risk posed by special interests and secure for another generation of all nations of the world a “sea of peace” in the final frontier.

Nathan Warden is a technical sales engineer who has worked 13 years in the defense and aerospace industry near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

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