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RD-180 Pits Senate Appropriators Against Authorizers

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jun-2015
Updated: 12-Jun-2015 09:10 AM

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) may want to hold DOD's feet to the fire to stop using Russian RD-180 engines by 2019, but the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) isn't so sure.   Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) objected to a provision in SAC's defense appropriations bill, which was marked up today, that would provide more flexibility as to when use of the RD-180s must end, but his amendment to delete the language won little support and he withdrew it.

SASC chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been a leader in motivating DOD and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to replace the Russian rocket engines for ULA's Atlas V rocket with an American alternative.  McCain and others who share his point of view do not want American dollars going to Russian President Vladimir Putin or his "cronies."   They want an American-built engine to replace the RD-180 by 2019, a requirement included in the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), although waivers are possible for national security reasons.

The Air Force and ULA are seeking to change that language to allow use of the RD-180s into the early 2020s.  They insist that although they might be able to develop a new engine by 2019, it will be 2021 or 2022 before the engine is integrated into a new rocket, tested, and certified for launching expensive, critical national security satellites.  The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) agreed and softened the requirement in its version of the FY2016 NDAA. 

McCain and other SASC members, however, expressed their displeasure with the Air Force's slow pace during a May 2015 hearing and did not provide any relief in the Senate version of the FY2016 NDAA, which is now being debated on the Senate floor (McCain spoke on the RD-180 issue today).  The Air Force wants to be able to procure 14 more RD-180s, while SASC wants to limit that number to nine. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee does not agree with SASC.   Although the text of the bill is not yet publicly available, Graham offered an amendment today to delete section 8045 that apparently allows greater flexibility in how many RD-180s may be purchased.  Democrats and Republicans both objected to the amendment.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) insisted that sufficient time is needed for an alternative U.S. engine to be developed so that the Air Force does not "jump from one monopoly to another." He cited a letter from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper endorsing the Air Force's position that more time is needed.

ULA has been a monopoly provider of launches for the national security sector since it was created in 2006 as a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture when the launch market could not sustain two competitors.  ULA offers the Altas V, Delta IV Medium, and Delta IV Heavy rockets.   It recently decided to discontinue the Delta IV Medium, leaving it with only Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy.  The Atlas V is powered by RD-180s and Delta IV Heavy, at $400 million per launch, is not cost competitive.  

Last month, the Air Force finally certified SpaceX to compete for national security launches.  ULA supporters therefore argue that if ULA is not allowed to launch Atlas V after 2019 because it cannot obtain more RD-180s, and the Delta IV is not competitive, SpaceX with its Falcon rockets will become a de facto monopoly provider.  Since the goal is to lower costs through competition, the argument goes, SpaceX should not be allowed to replace ULA as a monopoly provider and therefpre Atlas V launches are needed until ULA can offer a new rocket using a new American engine (or other competitors emerge).

The debate pits two groups against each other.  Both agree on the need to end U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines and reduce launch costs through competition.  The debate is over the timing.

One group is anxious to end reliance on Russia as soon as possible because of its annexation of Crimea last year and its continued action in Ukraine.  Some also are SpaceX advocates intent on lowering government costs for launching satellites through competition with ULA.  On the other side are ULA supporters who want to give the company time to develop and test an alternative engine and remain in the space launch business as well as those sympathetic to Air Force arguments that it needs more time to learn how to interact with the private sector in this new era of public-private partnerships.

SASC is in the first camp, while SAC appears to be in the other, though some SAC members clearly are in tune with the desire to end reliance on Russia sooner rather than later.  Durbin pointed out today that the provision in the appropriations bill, which provides $143.6 million to develop a new U.S. engine, calls it the "Competitive Rocket  Innovation Modernization Engine Assembly" or CRIMEA.  "The acronym tells the story," Durbin said.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of SAC, both spoke against the Graham amendment, stressing that the bill provides money to develop a new engine and the Air Force and ULA need sufficient time to succeed. 

Graham insisted that the authorizing committee (SASC) already had this debate and decided that the current 2019 deadline was achievable.  We are "not enhancing competition" by allowing ULA to use more than nine RD-180s, "we're enhancing the reliance on a Russian engine that we need to get away from," Graham insisted and a "date certain" is needed to "break this dependency."  Realizing the lack of support for his amendment, however, he withdrew it and said he would continue to work with Shelby on the issue.

Strictly speaking, authorizing committees set policy while the appropriations committee sets funding levels, so this could be an interesting case of jurisdictional and parliamentary dispute depending on the exact wording of the provision in the appropriations bill.

The committee approved its version of the FY2016 defense appropriations bill, but it is not clear when it will be debated on the Senate floor.  Senate Democrats have vowed to work to prevent any appropriations measures from being debated until Republicans agree to negotiate over revising or revoking the spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

The House passed its version of the defense appropriations bill (H.R. 2685) this afternoon.


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