AF Secretary James Not Sure 2019 is Doable for RD-180 Replacement

AF Secretary James Not Sure 2019 is Doable for RD-180 Replacement

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James added a dose of reality today to projections about when an American-made rocket engine could replace Russia’s RD-180s for the Atlas V rocket.  During testimony, she said that meeting the congressional mandate to have a new engine by 2019 may not be doable.  Her experts tell her it will take 6-8 years to get a new engine and another 1-2 years to integrate it into a launch vehicle.  

James spoke before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee (SAC-D) on the Air Force FY2016 budget request along with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III.  The two are scheduled to testify to the House counterpart subcommittee (HAC-D) on Friday. 

The issue really is about developing a new propulsion system, of which an engine is a part, but “engine” is commonly used as shorthand.

The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships beginning last year because of
Russia’s action in Ukraine highlighted how dependent
the United States is on Russian technology to launch U.S. national
security satellites.   The United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V and
Delta IV rockets — referred to as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs ) — launch almost
all of them, and the Atlas V is powered by Russia’s RD-180 engine.   The issue figured prominently in a number of hearings last year and Air Force
officials, including Gen. William Shelton, then head of Air Force Space
Command, rued the prospect of losing those engines.  Still, Shelton and
others eventually accepted
that the time had come for the United States to develop its own comparable
liquid rocket engine.

The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 113-291)
and its accompanying explanatory statement
direct DOD to develop a new U.S. propulsion
system by 2019 “using full and open
competition.” The law authorizes $220 million and notes it “is not an
authorization of funds for development of a new launch vehicle.” 
Section 608 of the law prohibits the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) from
“awarding or renewing a contract for the procurement of property or
services” under the EELV program if the contract involves “rocket
engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.”  The only exceptions are the EELV contract awarded to ULA on December 18, 2013 or unless the
SecDef certifies that the offeror can demonstrate that it fully paid for
or entered into a legally binding contract for such engines prior to
February 1, 2014.

The FY2015 Defense Appropriations Act (Division C of
P.L. 113-235) followed suit, appropriating the same $220 million as was authorized “to accelerate
rocket propulsion system development with a target demonstration date of
fiscal year 2019.”  It directs the Air Force, in consultation with
NASA, “to develop an affordable, innovative, and competitive strategy
… that includes an assessment of the potential benefits and challenges
of using public-private partnerships, innovative teaming arrangements,
and small business considerations.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and James engaged in two exchanges about the RD-180 today.  Shelby noted that the President’s FY2016 request is only for $84 million.  “It’s also my understanding that developing an RD-180 replacement engine and the associated launch vehicle and launch pad can cost anywhere from $1 billion to more than $3 billion and take perhaps 7 to 10 years to develop,” Shelby said.  James replied that technical experts have advised her that “It’s 6 to 8 years … for a newly designed engine and then an additional 1 to 2 years on top of that to be able to integrate the engine into the launch vehicle.”  As for cost, “I’ve seen $2 billion,” James said.

James asked that Congress clarify what it wants, because the 2019
deadline is “pretty aggressive” and “I’m
not sure 2019 is doable.”  She also stressed that they want “at least
two” domestic engines “because we want competition of course.”

Shelby also revealed that DOD’s General Counsel “may” interpret the Section 608 language contrary to congressional intent resulting in a “capability gap for certain launches” and eliminating “real competition.”  James explained that the General Counsel is trying to interpret several different provisions of law that may or may not have had the same intent, but said the point she wanted to stress is that “virtually everybody” agrees that the United States should be less reliant on Russia.  The question is how to accomplish that:  “We don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face.”

The two also discussed certification of “new entrants.” a reference to SpaceX, which has been attempting to obtain certification from the Air Force so it can compete against ULA for these types of national security launches.

ULA manufactures the Atlas V and Delta IV in Decatur, Alabama, Shelby’s home state.  Shelby talked about the virtues of competition, but, without mentioning SpaceX by name, said “some of these so-called companies that are planning to compete, and we’d like for them to compete, they have had several mishaps” compared to ULA.  James replied that every developmental program has mishaps and “I’m quite sure they’re going to get there from here.”

ULA is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  At yesterday’s hearing before the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, Boeing’s John Elbon also urged a “thoughtful” approach to the transition from the RD-180 to a U.S. engine and keeping the pipeline of engines open as long as possible rather setting a hard cut-off date.

Meanwhile, ULA announced last fall that it is partnering with Blue Origin to develop the BE-4 rocket engine as an RD-180 replacement.  ULA and Blue Origin said at the time that the project is fully paid for and not in need of government funding.

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