Senate Armed Services Committee Limits ULA Engines

John McCain
John McCain

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday that limits United Launch Alliance (ULA) to purchasing nine Russian-made RD-180 engines for use in the first stage of the company’s Atlas V booster to launch national security payloads.

The move sets up a showdown with the House Armed Services Committee, which earlier put the number of engines ULA could purchase at 18. ULA and the U.S. Air Force support the higher number, saying the engines are needed to meet military launch needs.

“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,” SASC said in a press release.

“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,” the committee said.

The Senate measure also repeals a provision in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill that removed any limits on RD-180 purchases. The provision, added by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), infuriated SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ).

When ULA runs out of Russian engines, it would be forced to bid on national security launches using its Delta IV booster. However, that rocket is oversized and overpriced for most military payloads. The FAA estimates prices for ULA launches as:

Atlas V
Payload: 8,123-18,814 kg (17,908-41,478 lbs)
Estimated Price per Launch: $110M-$230M

Delta IV
Payload: 9,420-28,790 kg (20,768-63,471 lbs)
Estimated Price per Launch: $164M-$400M

The Delta IV would be at a greater disadvantage competing against SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters are priced at $61.2 million and $90 million, respectively.

The NDAA would allow funds being spent by the U.S. Air Force to develop new launch vehicle technology to be used to offset the extra costs.

“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,” the committee said.

“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 committee added.

This is in opposition to ULA’s strategy, which is to continue using Atlas V until a replacement launch vehicle is available while phasing out use of the Delta IV except for its most powerful variant, which can lift the heaviest national defense payloads.

Almost all of ULA’s manifest is composed of military payloads, and most of those are launched on Atlas V boosters. A sharp reduction in Atlas V launches has the potential of raising unit costs.

A key issue is how soon ULA can develop a replacement for the RD-180 engine. The company is working with Blue Origin on a new launch vehicle called Vulcan that would utilize Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in its first stage. A new ACES upper stage would replace the Centaur used on both the Atlas V and Delta IV.

ULA has said the new booster, which would be more powerful than the Atlas V, would be ready to fly in 2019. However, it would take several years before the rocket could be certified to carry vital and expensive national security payloads. Thus, the need for more RD-180 engines to cover the transition period.

Congress has been pushing ULA to pursue a plan to replace the RD-180 in the Atlas V with Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine. Backers of this plan say it is a simpler and cheaper option that would allow the United States to end use of Russian-made engines sooner.

ULA is actually working with both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne on the BE-4 and AR-1 engines. The latter engine is considered a backup to the BE-4.