Thornberry Pushes To Accelerate U.S. Engine Development

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WASHINGTON – The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has proposed that the U.S. Air Force spend $100 million more than the service has budgeted next year to replace the Russian-made rocket engine used to launch most U.S. national security satellites.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) recommended that the Air Force spend $185 million next year on activities leading to an American-made replacement for the RD-180, the main engine on United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket. The Air Force requested $85 million for that effort in its 2016 budget proposal released in February.

In his markup of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, released April 27, Thornberry said he wanted the Air Force to “move faster than it is planning to end reliance on Russian rocket engines.”

The chairman’s markup follows the initial markup April 23 of the space-related portions of the defense bill by the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. The subcommittee mark also addressed the Russian-engine issue, but in a way that is more favorable to ULA: It clarifies an existing law banning future use of the RD-180 for military launches such that more of the engines are available for upcoming competitive launch contract awards.

Atlas 5 WorldView-3 launch
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying the WorldView-3 satellite for DigitalGlobe launches from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Credit: ULA

Accompanying materials from committee staffers explaining the chairman’s markup said “reliance on Russian-designed rocket engines is no longer acceptable.”

The full House Armed Services Committee is expected to mark up the bill April 29.

Lawmakers appropriated $220 million for the U.S. engine program for fiscal year 2015. The White House has budgeted $512 million for rocket technology and development work through 2020.

Several lawmakers have complained that the Air Force is moving too slowly, however. The service on April 24 issued a draft solicitation for propulsion technology work and a presolicitation notice for a propulsion system prototype.

Thornberry’s markup also included two other launch-related provisions, including ending the roughly $1 billion in annual Air Force payments to Denver-based ULA to cover activities that are not necessarily associated with specific missions. Rocket maker SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, which is challenging ULA’s monopoly in the Pentagon market, has branded the so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Launch Capability contract as a subsidy.

Air Force officials have conceded that the annual payments must come to an end, but the details of how that will happen remain unclear.

Thornberry’s second launch-related provision prohibits the Air Force from modifying its current launch services contract with ULA — an $11 billion, sole-source deal that covers construction and launch of 36 rocket cores plus launches of several older vehicles — to include additional rocket purchases.

Other military-space related provisions from the chairman’s markup include:

  • $26 million for the second “pathfinder” project in a Defense Department program set up to examine new ways to procure communications services from the private sector. The Air Force has no funding, either in 2015 or proposed for next year, allocated to the second pathfinder, in which the service would commit to a prelaunch lease of an entire transponder aboard a commercial satellite.
  • $20 million for the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space office. The service’s 2016 budget request included $6.5 million for the office, which was created to develop and deploy space capabilities to plug gaps or address emerging military needs. Air Force officials are considering having the office take the lead in developing next-generation replacements for satellites currently used for space surveillance and weather monitoring.