The U.S. Air Force is continuing work to reduce the cost of buying United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV and Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, which will remain the only vehicles for orbiting certain payload classes until new launch entrants are certified.

The Air Force came under scrutiny for its fiscal 2012 budget plan, which suggested negotiating a multiyear buy of 40 rocket cores from the Lockheed Martin/Boeing joint venture over five years. Government auditors suggested the strategy was proposed without enough data to bolster a sound rationale.

Since then, the Air Force has revised its approach to the fiscal 2013-17 procurement strategy and asked ULA to provide a “cost matrix” that provides a range of options that don’t limit the service to a specific number of vehicles. The range is 6-10 vehicles per year for three to five years, according to Maj. Tracy Bunko, an Air Force spokeswoman. “This data will allow the Air Force to balance the rate and commitment decision with our fundamental priorities: operational requirements with emphasis on mission assurance, price and encouraging competition,” she notes, adding that the Air Force had revised its strategy in advance of the criticism outlined by the Government Accountability Office.

Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, head of the Space and Missile Systems Center, says that the Air Force intends to award this contract to ULA next spring.

Guaranteeing an amount of work for the incumbent would seemingly be at odds with a plan to reduce cost by introducing competition into the system. But Pawlikowski says the Air Force is trying to get the best out of both efforts: reducing the cost of near-term buys from ULA while establishing conditions for competition to further lower prices.

The forthcoming ULA contract is Phase 1 of a two-pronged strategy, she says. “That approach deals with getting a price matrix [from the] vendor to understand where the break point is in quantities,” she says. “Where the tie-in is to our new entrants [strategy] is that we do not intend to put every launch vehicle that we think we are going to need to buy in the next five years on that block buy. There will be opportunities for additional purchases of EELV-class [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] rockets” outside of those outlined for ULA.

These two parallel strategies are intended to foster, around 2018, a competition with more experienced providers, including ULA and others, as Phase 2 of the strategy. “We are hopeful that by that 2018 time frame, we will have contenders that are viable, and they won’t be completely blocked out before then,” the general says. “If they become certified earlier than that, we will have these other launches for them to compete for.”