The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2016 NDAA, which exempted a total of nine RD-180 engines, prevailed in the compromise bill hashed out by House and Senate conferees. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The United States could struggle to promote competition in its space launch program while also maintaining two independent ways to launch satellites and ending U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines, a top U.S. Air Force official said on Tuesday.

William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force Credit: DoD
William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force Credit: DoD

“You’re going to have to choose two of those three. I don’t think you can get all three in the next four or five years,” William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told reporters.

“I think the space launch situation is serious for the country,” LaPlante said, underscoring the complexity of the challenges facing the industry.

His comments came after United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, last week said it would not bid to launch the next global positioning system (GPS) satellite, effectively ceding the competition to privately held Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX.

ULA, the monopoly provider of such launches since its creation in 2006, said it was unable to submit a bid in compliance with the competition’s rules because of how the contest was structured, and because it lacked Russian-built RD-180 engines for its Atlas 5 rocket.

The Pentagon last month refused to grant ULA a waiver from a U.S. law that banned use of the Russian engines for military and spy satellite launches after 2019. ULA had said it needed the waiver to compete against SpaceX, which was certified earlier this year to bid for the work.

LaPlante and other Air Force officials have urged Congress to allow ULA to use additional Russian engines for military launches until a new U.S.-built engine is available.

The ban still affects 9 of 29 engines that ULA had ordered from Russia, but not paid for, before Russia annexed Crimea. ULA has said that five engines approved for ULA’s use by Congress last year were assigned to other missions and were not available for use in a bid for the new GPS launch.

Congress has already approved the use of four more RD-180 engines in a compromise version of the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill, but Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, plans to attach an amendment to a massive federal spending bill that would further ease the Russian engine ban.

Senator John McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged Senator Thad Cochran, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a letter dated Nov. 19 to resist the move. Easing the ban would benefit the Russian government at a time when it continued to occupy Crimea, was bolstering the Syrian regime and sending weapons to Iran, he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Christian Plumb and Sanjeev Miglani)