Air Force Wary of Swapping ULA’s Monopoly for a Different Sort of Dependence

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Department officials and some House members fear a law passed by Congress last year could inadvertently create separate launch monopolies for two critical classes of national security payloads — intermediate and heavy.

The result could leave the Air Force one failed launch away from being without guaranteed access to space for certain missions beginning around 2019, officials warned.

The situation stems largely from a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 that bars future use of Russian-made rocket engines for launching national security payloads. The measure, prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, would effectively sideline United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, a workhorse powered by the Russian-made RD-180 engine that today launches most of the Pentagon’s intermediate-class satellites.

Denver-based ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, currently has a monopoly on the U.S. national security launch business with the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. The Delta 4, powered by a U.S.-made engine, includes a three-core configuration that is used to launch the Defense Department’s largest satellite payloads.

ULA, whose monopoly is being challenged by Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, plans to phase out the intermediate, or single-stick, version of the Delta 4 as early as 2018, and rely exclusively on the less expensive Atlas 5 to carry intermediate class satellites until it, too, is replaced. Although it will continue flying the three-stick Delta 4 Heavy for as long as the Air Force wants, ULA ultimately plans to field a brand new rocket, the Next Generation Launch System (NGLS), some time after 2020.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is awaiting Air Force certification of its intermediate-lift Falcon 9 rocket to carry national security missions in the coming months and plans to debut its three-stick Falcon Heavy rocket by the end of this year. The Falcon Heavy, which would compete directly with the Delta 4 Heavy, is expected to win certification by 2018 at the earliest.

During a hearing March 17 of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Mitch Mitchell, a vice president at Aerospace Corp. and a retired Air Force major general, laid out a scenario in which the Air Force, due to the Russian-engine ban and other factors, would be solely dependent on the Falcon 9 for intermediate-class payloads and Delta 4 Heavy for the largest payloads.

ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno
ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno testifying before the U.S. House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. Credit: House Armed Services Committee video capture

ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno added that with Delta 4 production limited to the seldom-used but critical heavy-lift variant, each vehicle would cost roughly $1 billion, an astronomical sum even by government-launch industry standards.

“It is not acceptable. Period,” said Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, who testified alongside Mitchell.

“This is our gravest concern,” added Katrina McFarland, the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition.

One way to avoid this scenario, these officials said, would be for Congress to allow ULA to purchase additional Russian-made RD-180 engines. The current law bans the use of Russian engines that were purchased after February 2014 for national security launches.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, who testified alongside Bruno, registered SpaceX’s opposition to lifting the RD-180 ban. “Not a single additional RD-180 is necessary to ensure American access to space,” she testified. “Two American-made launch vehicle families, the ULA Delta 4 series of rockets, and the SpaceX Falcon rockets, have the capability to fulfill 100 percent of the nation’s launch requirements.”

But Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) the chairman of the subcommittee, suggested an alternative whereby Congress clarifies the language, which in its current form — at least in the Air Force’s interpretation — leaves ULA with only five RD-180s available for competitions for as many as 40 launches through 2024. In that scenario, ULA would be forced to compete against SpaceX with its Delta 4, which is at least 25 percent more expensive than the Atlas 5.

Rogers said he wanted to make clear that Congress’ intent was for ULA to have about 14 RD-180 engines available for the upcoming competitions. Under that provision, the Defense Department would benefit from extended competition between the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9.

Rogers said he and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, would work with the Pentagon to help ease the transition from the Russian engine for the Defense Department.