HASC Chairman Critiques the Armed Services

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As the head of the House Armed Services Committee, it's the Chairman's responsibility to ensure efficiency with America's military. But that's a tough job rife with judgment calls. On March 29, 2019, Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) may have made the wrong one. The Chairman took it upon himself to write a letter to the Heather Wilson, the Secretary of the Air Force, criticizing the Air Force’s flagship aerospace program: The National Security Space Launch.

The Air Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) is a program established to build out America’s space launch capacities by developing U.S. propulsion systems to be used for national security payloads. The primary goal of the NSSL is to replace the United States’ use of foreign rockets with reliable American alternatives. And so far, the program has been impressively successful.

On October 10, 2018, the NSSL concluded with its first phase, selecting a few well-regarded aerospace contractors to facilitate the development of domestic rocket prototypes. The program has since made the smooth transition into its second phase, which involves the Air Force selecting two contractors to compete head-to-head for national security launch contracts from 2022 to 2026. On schedule to make its Phase 2 selection sometime this month, the Air Force is apparently operating too efficiently for Chairman Smith’s liking.

Speaking not just on his behalf, but for the entire House Committee on Armed Services, Smith released a two-page assessment of the Air Force's handling of the NSS Launch Program. He wasn't laudatory. In the letter, he explicitly attacked the Air Force's overall approach to the NSSL, calling it "concerning." He criticized the program's "fairness," culminating in a call for the Air Force to delay the NSSL and for an independent review to be conducted.

Chairman Smith's call for a serious delay to the NSSL program is certainly questionable. For one thing, there are no grounds for it. There's no substantive reason to suggest that the Air Force's current timeline for the NSS Launch Program places American lives at risk. The evidence suggests just the opposite. While the program in its current state doesn't pose a threat to national security, delaying the NSSL certainly would. The NSSL has a hard deadline of 2022, and any delays imposed on the NSSL would place undue stress on the program. By manufacturing a compressed timeline, Smith’s call for delay will lead to a greater risk of error, compromising America’s national security in the process.

The response to Adam Smith’s letter demonstrates that the Chairman’s criticisms may have been off-base. On April 12, 2019, a bipartisan coalition of legislators stormed to the Air Force’s defense. In a letter to the Air Force Secretary, 28 members of Congress commended the Air Force’s management of the NSSL and urged the program to continue as planned. The legislators decisively rebuffed Smith’s calls for an independent investigation, outlining the risks that such an investigation would bring—namely the weakening of performance standards and the potential declining of America’s spacefaring capabilities. Smith’s desire for “fairness” in the selection process would only serve to damage the NSSL’s competitive structure and undermine the Air Force’s selection method.

The impact of delaying the NSSL with an independent investigation would likely be severe, and that's before considering the cost to the American taxpayer. The price tag associated with postponing the program could range anywhere from tens of millions to well over a billion dollars. That's not to mention the hidden costs such a delay would create. Factors like the wasted man-hours decreased productivity, and the opportunity cost of time spent investigating are all things to consider. In the end, the taxpayer foots the bill for any and all setbacks that the LSA incurs. And Chairman Smith's desire to institute mandatory delays just doesn't fit the bill.

Despite Chairman Smith's decision to critique its flagship program, the Air Force remains resolute. In a recent statement, a representative for the Air Force insisted that Phase 2 of the NSSL must stay on schedule. This is absolutely the correct decision. The military should never place American national security at risk to satisfy the desires of an outspoken few. Given that the Chairman’s suggestions for the NSSL program would actively interfere with the program’s objective to secure the United States’ space independence, Smith would be wise to reconsider his view.

Shak Hill is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and former combat pilot, last serving in the Presidential Wing, Andrews Air Force Base (Joint Base Andrews), Maryland as a flight commander.

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