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House Passes Final FY2015 NDAA, Including RD-180 Cutoff, Money for New Engine

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Dec-2014
Updated: 04-Dec-2014 09:25 PM

The House passed the compromise National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2015 today by a vote of 300-119.  The Senate is expected to the pass the bill next week.  It includes restrictions on the future use of Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine for the Atlas V rocket and authorizes $220 million to begin development of a U.S. alternative.

The House passed its version of the bill on May 22 and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved a version on June 2.  The bill never made it to the floor of the Senate for a vote, however.  Instead, House and Senate members negotiated the final version (H.R. 3979) behind closed doors over the past several months.

The bill authorizes $585 billion for the Department of Defense (DOD) -- $521 billion in base spending plus $64 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (e.g. for the war in Afghanistan).

The bill has an entire subtitle devoted to a broad range of concerns about national security space programs (Subtitle A of Title XVI), including several provisions about space launch. Among them is a restriction on the use of Russian RD-180 engines for the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket.  ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV are Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).

Section 1608 prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from awarding or renewing a contract under the EELV program if it carries out space launch activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in Russia.  The language does provide waiver authority if needed for national security or if launch services could not be obtained at a fair and reasonable price otherwise.

The language also exempts engines that were ordered under the block buy contract that the Air Force signed with ULA in December 2013 or under any contract signed before February 1, 2014 where the engines were fully paid for by the contractor or covered by a legally binding commitment that the contractor pay for them.

U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch many U.S. national security satellites became a significant issue this spring after Russia annexed Crimea, beginning a downward spiral in U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationships.  ULA and the Air Force insist that it is "business as usual" with the Russian company that builds the engines, but they have also acknowledged that it is time for the U.S. to build its own new liquid rocket engine.  ULA President Tory Bruno recently framed it as a business decision, not a geopolitical one, however.

The bill also requires the SecDef to develop a new U.S. liquid rocket engine (actually a propulsion system) by 2019.  The bill authorizes $220 million in FY2015, while noting that it “is not an authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle.”  (It is important to note that authorization bills only recommend funding levels, they do not actually provide any money.  Only appropriations bills give agencies money to spend.  Congress has not completed action on any of the FY2015 appropriations bills yet.)

In response to a query about its reaction to the language in the bill, ULA said by email that “any effort to cut-off the RD-180 before a new reliable engine is available would result in billions of increased costs to the U.S. taxpayer and will leave the nation with a huge gap in national security capabilities.”   ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin in September to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180.

The bill also –

  • Requires the Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) to notify Congress of any change in the EELV acquisition plan and schedule.
  • Requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report to Congress by June 1, 2015 on the advisability of the SecDef requiring new entrants (like SpaceX) to “establish or maintain business systems that comply” with DOD’s “data requirements and cost accounting standards … including certified cost or price date.”
  • Directs the SecAF to use competitive procedures in awarding the contract for the 5th Operationally Responsive Space launch and ensure DOD’s competitive space launch opportunity policies are followed.
  • Increases by one in FY2015 and another one in FY2015-2017, the number of rocket cores for which space launch providers certified under the EELV program may submit proposals.

To mention just a few of the other issues addressed in the bill, it restricts spending to 50 percent of the authorized amount for several programs -- Weather Satellite Follow-on System, Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) Space Data Exploitation, hosted payload and SBIRS wide field of view testbed, and protected tactical demonstration and protected military satellite communications testbed – until certain certifications or reports are provided to Congress.

It also prohibits use of funds authorized in the bill to store one of DOD’s existing weather satellites (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program –DMSP) until DOD certifies that it plans to launch the satellite and storing it is the most cost effective approach to meeting DOD requirements.  That issue pertains to the last DMSP satellite, DMSP-20, which the Air Force appears ambivalent about launching, but the storage costs are high.  It has been in storage for many years already.  The DMSPs were supposed to be replaced by National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  DOD has been trying to decide the future of its weather satellite program since NPOESS was cancelled in 2010.  It launched DMSP-19 earlier this year, but its plans for DMSP-20 are unsettled.

The bill also requires –

  • the SecDef to request a study by the Defense Science Board of the effectiveness of the ground and space sensor system architecture for space situational awareness.
  • the SecAF to brief Congress on requirements and investments needed to modernize DOD space launch facilities.
  • the SecDef to report to Congress assessing the ability of the United States to deter and defeat any adversary’s act of aggression in outer space.
  • the SecDef to report to Congress on whether its satellite communications organizational structure is efficient and effective and assess the merits of designating the Commander of Air Force Space Command’s Missile Systems Center as the single acquisition agent for wideband satellite communications.

The text of the bill and the joint explanatory statement are posted on the websites of the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Editor's Note:  H.R. 3979 initially was a bill regarding volunteer firefighters and emergency responders that passed the House and Senate earlier this year.  It then became a bill on emergency unemployment compensation.  The text of the compromise version of the NDAA was inserted into that bill (replacing what was there), a procedure referred to as using it as a "legislative vehicle" for passing something else.  The goal is to speed legislative action by amending a bill that has already passed both chambers.  It is not uncommon.

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