Atlas 5 launch. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON — The White House said May 12 it disagrees with the House Armed Services Committee over how to wean the Defense Department from using a Russian-made rocket engine to launch military satellites.

In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year, Congress mandated that the Air Force stop using the RD-180 that powers United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket and begin work on a U.S.-built replacement. Lawmakers also provided $220 million for a new rocket engine.

Air Force officials are wary of developing an engine that launch companies do not want and instead want to spend the money more broadly on launch vehicle development.

But in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016, the committee said the money should go strictly to development of a “rocket propulsion system, and the necessary interfaces to the launch vehicle, to replace non-allied space launch engines.”

The White House views this approach as shortsighted.

“While rocket engines are a major component of a launch vehicle, they are only one of many critical components,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a May 12 statement of administration policy. “These components must be designed and developed together to meet the ultimate cost and performance goals, not only for the launch vehicle but also for the support, operations, and production infrastructure as well. Without a comprehensive strategy that ensures the availability of operational launch systems, the government risks investing hundreds of millions of dollars without any guarantee of ensuring assured access to space. “

The full House is expected to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act as soon as May 15.

RD-180 engines. Credit: ULA

Congress is having its own internal debates about national security launch policy.

During the first week of May, House members offered — and then withdrew — a series of amendments to the authorization bill, underscoring divisions over the timetable for phasing out the RD-180 and the upcoming competition for launch contracts between ULA and challenger SpaceX.

The final version of the bill includes a provision that allows the Defense Department to use the RD-180 even after the ban takes full effect “if space launch services cannot be obtained at a fair and reasonable price” and are needed for national security purposes.

In an amendment offered by Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) would have allowed the waiver to be granted for the national security reason alone.

Other launch-related amendments that did not make the final bill included:

  • Another from Perlmutter and Coffman requiring that all launch providers be able to handle medium and heavy class. SpaceX has yet to fly the a heavy-lift version of its Falcon rocket.
  • Several rules on how the Air Force would factor current and past government payments to ULA and SpaceX in upcoming national security launch competitions. One amendment specified that ULA’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Launch Capability payments, roughly $1 billion annually, be factored in; another singled out the government’s support to SpaceX.
  • A provision from Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) that would require the secretary of defense to certify that the Air Force will have access to two or more launch vehicles of the same class before ULA can retire a launch vehicle. ULA said in March it plans to phase out the medium-lift version of its Delta 4 rocket over the next several years. Though reliable, the Delta 4 is far more expensive than the Atlas 5.

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.