The Air Force Tried to Operate Efficiently — But Apparently That's Not Allowed

USAF photo Boeing Delta V rocket launch

It’s a sad day when the stubborn federal bureaucracy prevails over an entity attempting to manage taxpayer dollars efficiently. And when billionaire businessmen are allowed to dictate space policy to the United States Air Force, it’s tragic. But that’s what is happening to the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program.

The NSSL is the Air Force’s premier aerospace initiative, designed to keep America first in space by limiting the U.S.’s over-reliance on other countries’ products and services through the thing America does best: competitive enterprise. That would be the case, unless influencers like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk get their way.

Thus far, the Air Force has run the NSSL efficiently, protecting America’s national security with competitive contract bidding that has resulted in minimal waste to taxpayers. But big-name cronies and federal bureaucracy evidently won’t permit an efficient government program and are doing their best to derail it.

Back in mid-August, Blue Origin – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ personal aerospace company – filed a protest against the Air Force’s handling of the NSSL program. Blue Origin complained that the Air Force is operating NSSL unfairly, but that’s ridiculous. Just this year alone, the Air Force’s NSSL program awarded Blue Origin a massive contract valued at $500 million. Bezos’ company isn‘t being treated unfairly and it isn’t hurting for government money; it’s just not being selected by the government 100 percent of the time. In filing protest, though, Blue Origin isn’t trying to be logically consistent – it just wants more power.

By pressuring the Air Force to weaken its competitive structure, Blue Origin increased its chances of landing a launch contract. The move to protest was an obvious, self-serving ploy – one that the Department of Defense easily saw through. But apparently, this slipped by the bureaucratic watchdogs, who bought into the argument hook, line, and sinker.

On November 18, 2019, the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) released a statement siding with Blue Origin. In the press release, the GAO argued that the NSSL’s selection process was unjust because the Air Force’s methodology “does not provide a reasonable, common basis on which offerors will be expected to compete.” According to the GAO, should the NSSL program move forward, the Air Force must explicitly outline the various factors considered during its selection process.

But that’s absurd. Here’s why.

When it comes to the NSSL, the Air Force is essentially a consumer deciding which services it wants to acquire. Like any other consumer, the USAF has the opportunity to select from a range of different providers, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Consumers, however, are never forced to lay out in explicit detail the exact methodology for their decision; the onus is always on the service provider to prove their capabilities. But now, the GAO is arguing precisely the opposite.

The GAO would rather the consumer (in this case, the Air Force) be forced to articulate its myriad priorities and justify its decision-making to the service providers. This inverts market principles. It will also considerably slow down the NSSL by forcing the Air Force to retool its entire selection process. And for what? All to allow deep-pocket cronies like Jeff Bezos a better chance to snare government contracts.

Indeed, the GAO’s decision is both completely unreasonable and wholly unprecedented. It also highlights the dangerous coupling of crony business interests and cumbersome government bureaucracy.

This isn’t the first time cronyism has attempted to infiltrate the NSSL initiative, either.

In May 2019, SpaceX sued the Air Force for “wrongly awarding” NSSL launch contracts to its competitors. Once again, an aerospace company headed by a famous billionaire – Elon Musk in this case – attempted to use the power of federal bureaucracy to exert its crony influence over the NSSL’s selection process. Just like Blue Origin’s protest, SpaceX’s lawsuit was undoubtedly filed to acquire more taxpayer funds, not out of a quest for fairness or justice. And while the courts have yet to rule on SpaceX’s suit, in the case of Blue Origin, the GAO was more than happy to play ball.

Musk and Bezos are savvy. The two have already been a disruptive force within a largely stagnant space industry, and for the most part, I’m a fan of what they’ve managed to accomplish. I like how they have pushed commercial space flight to unprecedented success. But for all their positive disruption, both Bezos and Musk have made billions off of taxpayer-funded programs and subsidies.

They have figured out there's gain to be had in exploiting or creating government inefficiencies. Government waste is crony profit, and when inefficiencies don’t exist, federal bureaucracy can be used to create them. That’s exactly what is happening now with the NSSL – and that’s precisely why people like Bezos and Musk cannot be trusted. They are attempting to weaken an effective, essential national security program, and government watchdogs like the GAO are helping to pave the way.