No Waiver for ULA for GPS III Launch Contract

No Waiver for ULA for GPS III Launch Contract

The Department of Defense (DOD) has decided not to issue a waiver from current legal restrictions on the number of RD-180 engines the United Launch Alliance (ULA) can obtain to launch national security satellites.  The issue arose after the Air Force issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to launch a GPS III satellite and ULA indicated it might not be able to bid on the launch because of an insufficient supply of engines for its Atlas V rocket.

In a statement emailed to, Deputy Secretary of Defense spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Hillson pointed to several restrictions, including legal constraints, that are complicating DOD’s efforts to ensure it has two sources of launch services.   The 2013 National Space Transportation Policy reasserts long standing guidance that the Secretary of Defense ensure “to the maximum extent practicable, the availability of at least two U.S. space transportation vehicle families capable of reliably launching national security payloads.”

Since 2006, ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has been a monopoly supplier of those services with its two launch vehicle families — Atlas V and Delta IV, so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).   This year, the Air Force certified SpaceX to compete for EELV launches with its Falcon 9 rocket.   ULA contends that Delta IV, the largest in the current U.S. fleet, is too expensive to compete successfully for launch contracts, leaving it with only Atlas V as a SpaceX competitor.  If ULA cannot bid on the GPS III launch contract because it does not have sufficient RD-180 engines, SpaceX would be the only supplier, undermining the two-launcher policy, the reasoning goes.

ULA President Tory Bruno made a statement last week that ULA might not be able to bid on the GPS III contract because of the restrictions placed by Congress in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on the number of RD-180 engines it can obtain from Russia.  Congress is determined to end U.S. reliance on Russian engines as quickly as possible in the aftermath of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and instead build an alternative U.S. engine.  DOD agrees in principle, but there is substantial debate about the timing of the transition from RD-180s to a new American engine and therefore how many RD-180s are needed.  The FY2016 NDAA,
which has cleared Congress but is under a veto threat from the
President, continues restrictions, with a total of nine more engines allowed.  Both the FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs allow the Secretary of Defense to grant a waiver from the restrictions under certain circumstances, however, raising the question as to whether such a waiver would be granted for the GPS III launch.

The answer is no, for now at least.  Hillson’s statement says DOD does “not believe any immediate action is required … although we will continue to evaluate the need…”   The Department will examine a “range of options … while developing a long term acquisition strategy.”   If necessary, “sole source allocation of some launches” will be one of those options.

GPS III is the newest generation of Global Positioning System positioning, navigation and timing satellites.  The RFP for launch of one GPS III was issued on September 30 and bids are due November 16.   It is the first of nine competitive launch services planned in the FY2016 budget for awards using FY2015-2017 funding.

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