Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address:

SASC Sticks to Its Guns on RD-180 Rocket Engines

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-May-2016
Updated: 12-May-2016 11:45 PM

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved its version of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today.  Continuing a two-year dispute over how many Russian RD-180 rockets engines may be obtained for United Launch Alliance (ULA) Altas V rockets, the committee insisted on keeping the number at nine instead of raising it to 18 as recommended by its House counterpart.  The SASC bill would also repeal language in the FY2016 appropriations bill that lifted the limit set in last year's NDAA.

The fundamental issue is how quickly a U.S. alternative to the Russian engine can be developed and tested sufficiently to assure that U.S. national security satellites can be launched as needed -- called assured access to space. The RD-180 engine was chosen for the Atlas V rocket in the 1990s when U.S.-Russian relationships were good.  Since Russia's annexation of Crimea two years ago and its subsequent actions in Ukraine, broad agreement has arisen among Congress, the White House and the Air Force that the United States should not be reliant on Russian rocket engines to place critical national security satellites into orbit.  SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) is a leading voice on this issue and often asserts that U.S. dollars should not go to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies."

SASC and other congressional committees disagree, however, on the timing for the transition from RD-180-powered Atlas V rockets to a new rocket with U.S.-built engines.  At the moment, the argument is over whether ULA should be allowed to obtain nine more, or 18 more, than the number already under contract.   Currently the Air Force states that it needs 18 more to ensure the Atlas V is available until the early 2020s when a new launch system -- an engine plus the rest of the launch vehicle -- has been tested and certified.  McCain and his supporters argue it can be done by 2019 and only nine more engines are needed.  (Last year, the Air Force and ULA said 14 were needed, but now it is 18.)

Another element of the debate is a drive to encourage competition in the national security space launch market.  ULA has been virtually a monopoly provider of national security launch services since it was created as a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture in 2006.  Last year, SpaceX was certified by the Air Force to compete with ULA. Generally, ULA supporters want to obtain enough RD-180s to keep ULA's Atlas V available for as long as possible to compete with SpaceX's Falcon rockets, while SpaceX supporters want to end the use of Atlas V and its Russian engines quickly with the expectation that SpaceX Falcon rockets coupled with ULA's larger Delta IV launch vehicles can satisfy national security space launch requirements.

U.S. national space transportation policy requires that at least two independent launch systems be available for national security launches.  If one suffers a failure, access to space is assured by the other.  For more than a decade, those two have been Atlas V and Delta IV, both ULA rockets.  SpaceX argues that now the two can be its Falcon plus ULA's Delta IV.  ULA and its supporters insist, however, that the Delta IV is prohibitively expensive compared to Atlas V and the best choice for the taxpayers is to keep Atlas V available until the early 2020s when ULA's new Vulcan rocket -- with a U.S. engine -- will be able to compete with SpaceX on price.

SASC insists that a new U.S. engine can be ready by 2019 and only nine more RD-180s are needed until that time. That is the number set by the FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs.  However, the Senate Appropriations Committee undermined that authorization language in the FY2016 appropriations bill, essentially removing all limits.  (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See our "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)

Today, SASC insisted on nine engines only and called for repeal of the appropriations language.  A committee summary of its action allocates three paragraphs to the issue:

"Providing Assured Access to Space and Ending Reliance on Russia

"Despite the efforts of the committee, United States assured access to space continues to rely on Russian rocket engines, the purchase of which provide financial benefit to aides and advisors to Vladimir Putin – including individuals sanctioned by the United States – and subsidizes the Russian military-industrial base. This is unacceptable at a time when Russia continues to occupy Crimea, destabilize Ukraine, menace our NATO allies, send weapons to Iran, violate the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and bomb U.S.-backed forces in Syria fighting the Assad regime.

"That is why the NDAA repeals a provision from last year’s omnibus appropriations bill that furthered dependence on Russia and requires that assured access to space be achieved without the use of rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation. In testimony before the committee, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Secretary of the Air Force each confirmed to the committee that the United States can meet its assured access to space requirements without the use of Russian rocket engines. Once the nine Russian rocket engines allowed by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 and Fiscal Year 2016 are expended, the Defense Department would be authorized to utilize only those launch vehicles that do not require rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.

"According to the Department of Defense Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and a study commissioned by the Air Force, the continued use of Russian rocket engines will not provide the cost competitive launch environment the Air Force was hoping would materialize. Given the urgency of eliminating reliance on Russian engines, the NDAA would allow for up to half of the funds made available for the development of a replacement launch vehicle or launch propulsion system to be made available for offsetting any potential increase in launch costs as a result of prohibitions on Russian rocket engines. With $1.2 billion budgeted from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2021 for the launch replacement effort and $453 million already appropriated in fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016, there is more than sufficient funding available and budgeted for a replacement propulsion system or launch vehicle and to offset any additional costs required in meeting our assured access to space requirements without the use of Russian rocket engines."

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) marked up its version of the FY2017 NDAA in April and agreed to the ULA/Air Force position of 18 more.  The House is expected to take up the bill next week.


User Comments



SpacePolicyOnline.com has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.