HASC Subcommittee Proposes $220 Million for U.S. Alternative to Russia's RD-180 Engines – UPDATE

HASC Subcommittee Proposes $220 Million for U.S. Alternative to Russia's RD-180 Engines – UPDATE

UPDATE,  April 30, 2014:   The subcommittee adopted the draft in less than 10 minutes today.  Amendments were deferred until full committee markup next week (May 7).  Two subcommittee Democrats rued the fact that important issues were not being debated at subcommittee level by the members most knowledgeable about them, but it was apparent a deal had been struck to defer discussion and action to the full committee.

ORIGINAL STORY, April 29, 2014:  The Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will markup its section of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act on Wednesday, April 30.  A draft of the subcommittee’s portion of the bill provides $220 million to DOD to begin development of a U.S.-built liquid rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180 engines used for the Atlas V rocket.

Tensions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine have added visibility to the extent to which the U.S. space program relies on Russia.   From crew transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS) to engines for the Atlas V rocket, which is used to launch national security satellites as well as spacecraft for NASA, the increasing dependence of U.S. space activities on its Cold War competitor but more recent partner has gone largely unnoticed in Congress.  Lockheed Martin, which builds the Atlas V, insists that it has a two-year supply of RD-180 engines in stock as a buffer against any change in the geopolitical relationship, but the deteriorating situation is providing impetus to decision makers to make funding available to develop a new U.S. liquid rocket engine.

The subcommittee draft also explicitly supports DOD’s December 2013 block buy of rocket cores from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for the Altas V and Delta IV rockets — jointly called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).   SpaceX, which is trying to compete against ULA for government launches, filed suit against the Air Force yesterday on the basis that the contract should have been awarded competitively rather than on a sole source basis.  The subcommittee draft does direct the Air Force to provide “opportunities” for competition by certified launch providers, but clearly supports the block buy.  SpaceX is going through the certification process now.

Other space-related provisions in the draft bill include:

  • a requirement that DOD assess and report to Congress on DOD’s ability to deter and defeat any adversary’s act of aggression in outer space, though China and Russia are cited as specific examples;
  • requires the Air Force to launch the last Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite (DMSP-20) and limits expenditure of funds for DOD’s weather satellite follow-on program until the Air Force submits a plan to meet the meteorological and oceanographic collection requirements validated by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council;
  • limits the expenditure of funds for the Space-Based InfraRed Satellite (SBIRS) space modernization initiative until the Air Force certifies that data from SBIRS current sensors are being fully exploited;
  • expresses concern about the decision to delay procurement and launch of GPS III satellites and requires a report on a GPS replenishment plan;
  • requests a briefing on the potential use of modern communications satellite technologies such as high capacity communications satellites to meet DOD requirements;
  • supports the Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Kestrel Eye nanosatellite-class imagery satellite; and
  • supports the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) but expresses concern about a lack of synchronization between availability of the space segment and user terminals.

Subcommittee markup is at noon EDT on April 30.

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