WASHINGTON — The new U.S. law barring the Air Force from using Russian-made rocket engines starting in 2019 could force the Defense Department’s primary launch services provider to battle for future military business with its least competitive product.

Although Congress provided money for the Air Force to start work on a new U.S.-built main engine this year, service officials are doubtful that it will be ready by 2019. Even if it is, which industry officials argue is possible, the engine would still have to be certified by the Air Force to carry national security payloads, a process that one executive said could take more than two years.

That scenario would leave United Launch Alliance, which since its 2006 formation has had a monopoly in the national security market, in a weak competitive position relative to its rising nemesis, SpaceX. The Hawthorne, California-based company is on the verge of earning certification for its low-cost Falcon 9 rocket and also hopes to demonstrate a heavy-lift launcher this year.

Delta 4 rocket
ULA’s other main rocket, the Delta 4, uses an American-made engine, unlike the Atlas 5, which uses the Russian-made RD-180. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The problem for ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, is that its lowest-cost rocket, the Atlas 5, is powered by the Russian-built RD-180 engine that is the primary target of the congressionally imposed ban. ULA’s other main rocket, the Delta 4, is powered by an American-made engine and is technically capable of launching all of the satellites on the Defense Department manifest. But in addition to being far more expensive than the Atlas 5, the Delta 4 is often viewed as an inferior rocket.

“There may not be much of a competition if [the Atlas 5] is not available to be a part of it,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters Feb. 25 after testifying before Congress. “The question is, would [Delta 4] be cost effective? If it’s not, then I fear that we would inadvertently be trading one monopoly … for a new monopoly — and I don’t think anybody wants that to happen.”

The issue is a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 mandating that the Air Force stop using Russian-made rocket engines by 2019. The language is rooted in escalating tensions between the United States and Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.

Concern about the law’s implications were at the forefront of the hearing of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, during which James said the presumed 2019 delivery date for a new engine was probably not feasible.

“You’re looking at six years, maybe seven years to develop an engine and another year or two beyond that to integrate,” James said in response to questioning from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “This truly is rocket science. These are hard technical problems and so to have that 2019 date there is pretty aggressive and I’m not sure we can make it. I turn to my technical experts. That’s what they tell us.”

James’ comments echoed similar assessments by Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, who has alternately called the timetable “challenging” and “aggressive.”

Congress provided $220 million to begin work on a new main engine this year, and the Air Force has budgeted more than $500 million for the effort over six years. However, experts have said developing a new main rocket engine will cost at least $1 billion.

For their part, senior industry officials are more confident in their ability to deliver a new main engine by 2019. Two engine candidates under consideration by Denver-based ULA are the BE-4, which is being developed by Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, in partnership with ULA, and the AR-1 proposed by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive, said via Twitter Feb. 25 that the BE-4, ULA’s primary choice of RD-180 replacement, is on schedule for a 2019 first flight, but acknowledged certification of a new rocket would take until 2022 or 2023. Unlike the kerosene-fueled RD-180, the BE-4 is fueled by liquid-natural gas, which means it cannot be readily integrated into the existing Atlas 5 core structure.

@Avron_p @John_Gardi @LAUNCHULA @OrbitalATK Our Next Gen rocket makes her maiden flight in 2019

— Tory Bruno (@torybruno) February 25, 2015

Bruno said that the kerosene-fueled AR-1, which ULA views as a backup option, is about one to two years behind the BE-4. ULA expects to make a final decision on which of the two engines to pursue in 2016 or 2017, Bruno said.

“The existing law leaves us no flexibility,” Bruno said in a separate tweet.

Linda Cova, executive director of hydrocarbon engine programs at Sacramento, California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne, said “2019 is a feasible date” for delivering the AR-1, whose development to date has been funded by a combination of company and government programs. However, Aerojet Rocketdyne officials have said the engine would cost in the neighborhood of $1 billion to field.

What the AR-1 has going for it is its similarity to the RD-180, including common interfaces, which means its engineers might be able to plug it into the back end of the existing Atlas 5 core structure, Cova said in a Feb. 26 interview. That, in turn, could simplify the certification process.

The Air Force in 2013 awarded ULA an $11 billion sole-source contract for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets that runs through 2019. The RD-180s ordered as part of this contract are exempt from the authorization legislation.

Nonetheless, there appears to be some confusion over the reach of the congressionally imposed RD-180 ban. During the hearing, Shelby raised questions about exactly which engines would be grandfathered under the new law.

James said she would welcome a clarification from Congress on the law’s scope and well as an “adjustment” to its 2019 deadline.

Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, said a legal review of the provision is underway.

The legislation does allow for a waiver process for national security missions “if space launch services cannot be obtained at a fair and reasonable price without the use of the Russian RD-180 engines.”

ULA says it is evaluating a proposal to purchase as many as 30 more RD-180 engines — beyond what it needs to fulfill the needs of the block buy contract — that the company says will be used in part for future commercial missions.

SpaceX, meanwhile, builds its Merlin engine — nine of which power the first stage of the Falcon 9 — in house. “These engines are made by American workers here in the U.S.,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said via email Feb. 26. “SpaceX stands ready today to solve the problem of continued reliance on Russian-made engines.”

SpaceX is developing a more-powerful engine dubbed Raptor that is designed to generate more than 661,000 pounds of thrust in a vacuum. That engine began testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi last year.


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.