United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket, powered by the Russian RD-180 engine, is prepared to launch Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo tug. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON – The White House said June 7 it would veto the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the defense authorization bill for 2017, citing its objections to several military space sections of the bill, including four launch related provisions.

The full Senate began debating SASC’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017 on June 6 and discussion is expected to last much of this week.

The White House said in a June 7 statement of administration policy that it objected to a series of provisions related to the launch of national security satellites and the Air Force’s dependence on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, which powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket.

Congress banned future use of Russian engines for U.S. national security launches in the 2015 defense authorization bill as a response to Russia’s actions near the Ukraine border in 2014.

As part of the 2017 authorization bill, SASC provided limited relief from the ban, giving ULA access to nine engines until a new American engine or launch vehicle is ready around 2022. ULA executives have committed five of those engines for civil and commercial launches.

The House has approved an authorization bill that allows for the use of up to 18 new engines.

In addition, SASC said it would authorize the use of $148 million, set aside for the development of a new American-made launch system, to help the Air Force offset the costs of swapping missions to the more expensive Delta 4 rocket and not using the Atlas 5 engine.

The White House said the launch provisions in the Senate committee’s bill would inhibit the Defense Department’s “ability to maintain assured access to space, delay the launch of national security satellites, delay the on-ramp of new domestic launch capabilities and services, and increase the cost of space launch to DOD, the Intelligence Community, and civil agencies,” the statement said.

Instead, the White House gave its support to a House provision for the use of up to 18 engines, saying those engines are “necessary and prudent to expeditiously and affordably transition to the new domestic launch capabilities. “

McCain responded to the White House statement in a June 7 press release saying “Like all products of bureaucracy, the Statement of Administration Policy is a sorry defense of the status quo: misalignment of authority and accountability, deficits in strategic integration and harnessing innovation, bloated staffs, a broken defense acquisition system, and dependence on Russia for access to space.”

The engine issue is far from settled for the year. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) filed an amendment to the authorization bill on June 7, allowing the Air Force to use the engine through 2022, when an American-made launch system is expected to be complete.

“Banning the use of these engines too soon would not only cost taxpayers billions of dollars, it would put our national security at risk and unnecessarily hamper our ability to launch satellites into space,” Nelson said in a release.

Withholding OCX funds

The White House also balked at a SASC provision that would prohibit the Air Force from spending $393 million next year on a next-generation ground system to control GPS satellites until Defense Secretary Ash Carter makes the case the program should not be cancelled.

Fencing funding on the Operational Control Segment “will result in a stop-work for the development, test, and integration” for two blocks of work on the program, the White House said. The first is the ability of the ground system to process the launch and checkout of GPS 3 satellites, and the second would allow for the command and control of the GPS 3 and earlier generation satellites. By withholding the funding, the SASC bill would result in a six to 12 month delay to the launch of GPS 3, the White House said. The first GPS 3 satellite is scheduled to launch no earlier than mid-2017.

According to an acquisition report released by the Defense Department in March, OCX’s program costs have increased about 22 percent from about $3.4 billion in 2012 to at least $4.2 billion this year. Those numbers are expected to rise.

The program has faced continuing technical difficulties and the delays have been a sore point for Air Force leaders, who say that because of the lag they will be unable to immediately leverage the full capabilities of the GPS 3 satellites, which include better accuracy and higher-power signals.

Raytheon is the program’s prime contractor.

The White House said the Senate panel’s provision could lead to increased costs and schedule delays and prevent the deployment of M-code, a military GPS signal that is more powerful and harder to jam.

NRO oversight

In addition, the White House objected to SASC’s request that the Defense Department’s Comptroller General begin annual assessments of each National Reconnaissance Office program that receives funding from the military intelligence program or is supported by Defense Department personnel.

The NRO builds and operates the country’s spy satellites and SASC wants a Comptroller General report that would examine the cost, performance and schedule of each NRO program

“This additional oversight would be exceptionally burdensome and unnecessarily wasteful to an agency that has received seven consecutive clean financial audits and was recently recognized by the Congress for its systems acquisitions excellence,” the White House statement said. “The current oversight regime is sufficient and appropriate.”

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.