This story was updated at 2:35 p.m.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is considering adding language to a must-pass federal spending bill that would give the U.S. military access to a controversial Russian-made rocket engine until an alternative becomes available, a spokeswoman for his office said Nov. 19.

Such a measure, likely to be opposed by several key lawmakers, would take the sting out the current Russian-engine ban that threatens to undermine competition in the U.S. national security launch market. United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, which is powered by the Russian built RD-180 engine, is considered the only viable competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The U.S. Air Force’s plan to reintroduce competition into its satellite launching program has gotten off to an inauspicious start, in part because of the ban, which applies to engines that are not already under contract and assigned to future military missions. On Nov. 16, Denver-based ULA said it declined to bid for the right to launch a GPS 3 satellite in 2018, effectively ceding the contract to its arch rival.

Among the reasons the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture cited for not bidding was the lack of an available RD-180 engine to launch the satellite. But the company cited other reasons having nothing to do with the ban. Those prominently include the inability to certify that funds from other government programs would not be used for the launch in question.

“The [request for proposals] requires ULA to certify that funds from other government contracts will not benefit the GPS III launch mission,” ULA said in a statement sent to reporters Nov. 16. “ULA does not have the accounting systems in place to make that certification, and therefore cannot submit a compliant proposal.”

To meet the GPS 3 bidding requirements, ULA would need to modify its current accounting system, a move that would put the company in a state of noncompliance with its existing contracts, ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said.

ULA technicians prepare the U.S. Air Force's encapsulated GPS 2-F10 satellite for its July 15, 2015 launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: ULA video
ULA technicians prepare the U.S. Air Force’s encapsulated GPS 2-F10 satellite for its July 15, 2015 launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: ULA video
ULA technicians prepare the U.S. Air Force’s encapsulated GPS 2-F10 satellite for its July 15, 2015 launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: ULA video

The GPS 3 mission is the first of nine medium-class launches the Air Force intends to put out for bid by the end of 2017. Of the nine, six are for GPS 3 satellites, which are well within the performance of SpaceX’s low-cost Falcon 9 rocket.

ULA said the GPS 3 launch procurement’s emphasis on cost was another factor in its decision not to bid. The procurement, ULA’s statement said, gives little to no weight to attributes such as reliability, schedule assurance and past performance, all of which play to the company’s strengths.

SpaceX, which is eager to break into the lucrative national security launch market, submitted an unsolicited bid in 2012 to launch the GPS 3 satellites for $79.9 million apiece. The Air Force rejected the offer, but later certified the Hawthorne, California-based company’s Falcon 9 rocket to carry military and intelligence payloads to orbit.

The pricing and accounting issues cited by ULA appear to be new, even though the Air Force has been planning the procurement for months and issued its final request for bids Sept. 30. For weeks ULA has been threatening not to bid based solely on the RD-180 availability issue.
ULA says it effectively needs unfettered access to the RD-180 over the next several years to keep it competitive until its next-generation Vulcan rocket comes on line around 2021.

The language being considered by Shelby would grant that.

The U.S. Defense Department, like the rest of the government, is currently funded under a continuing resolution that expires Dec. 11. Shelby, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is eyeing the follow-on spending bill, which must pass to avoid a government shutdown, as the vehicle for relaxing the RD-180 ban, said Torrie Matuos, a spokeswoman for the senator.

Shelby did not yet have specific language he hoped to introduce, Matuos said.

Still, Shelby’s suggestion could face resistance in both houses of Congress. Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees negotiated a deal in the defense authorization bill that would give ULA access to four RD-180s for upcoming Air Force launch competitions, presumably including the GPS 3 mission. The House wanted a larger number, but the Senate position prevailed in conference.

The Air Force is expected to award a launch contract for the GPS 3 satellite in March.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.