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July 20, 2011—Congress has been asking the Air Force for years to focus on more developed technologies and to incorporate block buys of satellites into its overall space acquisition strategy to reign in skyrocketing acquisition costs.

The Air Force designed a new strategy that it dubs evolutionary acquisition for space efficiency, or EASE, to do just that. First introduced in the service's Fiscal 2012 budget request, EASE spells out an incremental funding approach based on blocked buys, fixed-price contracts, and advance procurement dollars intended to create stability in the space industrial base by locking in a steady stream of funding over multiple years.

Air Force acquisition experts say EASE, if implemented as planned, could save the service at least 10 percent of the costs associated with space acquisition. That's a significant amount of money considering most satellites come with a multi-billion-dollar price tag.

Air Force officials could then reinvest those savings in systematic block upgrades to the satellites, again, creating stability in the program, explained Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, to reporters Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

He said Pentagon officials are hopeful that Congress will support EASE;  Air Force officials continue to promote the plan on Capitol Hill, he noted.

"Execution of this strategy depends very much on the support of Congress," he said. Basically it comes down to whether Congress "wants to manage satellite acquisition year-to-year, or [whether] they are willing to support a more stable, long-term approach."

However, so far Congress has been giving the plan mixed reviews.

In its Fiscal 2012 budget proposal, the Air Force requested a total of $550 million to start the procurement of two Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites and announced plans to ask for advance appropriations in the subsequent five years, essentially kick-starting the EASE strategy.

The proposal also sought $185 million in advance procurement funding for the Space Based Infrared System program, with the intention of spending another $550 million in Fiscal 2013 for two SBIRS early warning satellites.

The Senate Armed Services Committee authorized the Air Force to purchase both AEHF satellites under a fixed-price contract in its mark-up of the service's Fiscal 2012 budget request. It also capped the total cost of the two satellites at $3.1 billion, with limited exceptions to the cap, according to the committee's report (caution, large-sized file) that accompanies the draft version of the Senate's defense authorization bill for next fiscal year.

However, it did not improve the advance funding, which Schulte characterized as "an integral part of EASE."

Instead, the SASC opted to fund the AEHF contract incrementally over a five-year period, which means that the Air Force would still need to go back to Congress each year to get the funding approved.

The committee would allow the Air Force to use "prior-year funds" for the advance procurement of the sixth AEHF satellite, but demanded that the service save "no less than 20 percent" through the implementation of the new policy.

It also directed the Air Force to provide two reports outlining the specific cost savings, total cost of the contract, and exactly how the service intends to use those savings.

"The committee supports this approach to procuring these large satellites," reads the report. "The committee is concerned, however, about the approach to add additional capability or to modernize future AEHF or other communications satellites."

The EASE plan is "acceptable," continues the report, as long as the Air Force uses the savings for "competitively selected" improvements and the "technology development funds support all military communications satellites, not just AEHF."

Similarly, the House Armed Services Committee supported the service's request to use a fixed-price contract to procure the two AEHF satellites and also gave the go-ahead to incrementally fund the satellites over the next five years. But committee members didn't grant authority for the advance appropriations. The House approved its version of the Fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill in late May. (HASC report; caution, large-sized file.)

The House Appropriations Committee, however, took a much harsher view of EASE in its mark-up, saying the program is just one in a long line of "troubled space acquisition" strategies to emerge over the last two decades.

"The committee does not approve the acquisition plan using the advance appropriations concept," according to its report (caution, large-sized file), which goes with the House's version of next fiscal year's defense spending bill. The House passed the bill earlier this month.

"The committee understands the funding dilemma, but is disappointed that the [Defense] Department will not dedicate resources to fully fund its space programs, and instead is willing to rely on a budgeting gimmick," states the HAC report.

The House appropriators stated that the theory behind EASE "has merit, but the implementation details are woefully lacking." Specifically, the HAC report said there is "no vision for what lies beyond the current block buy of Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites and the Space Based Infrared System satellites."