With just weeks before a critical deadline to fund the federal government looms, a fight is brewing on Capitol Hill over the kind of rocket engine the Defense Department can use to send its military satellites into space.
Last week, United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture, dropped out of the competition to launch the Pentagon’s next-generation Global Positioning System satellite in 2018. They surrendered a long-held industry monopoly and put Elon Musk’s SpaceX on track to win its first military contract.
ULA officials cited language in the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that restricted the company from purchasing only four Russian-made RD-180 engines that power its Atlas V rocket. The restriction was imposed in reaction to Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine.
Company leaders also complained that President Obama, who vetoed an earlier draft of the NDAA because it ignored a then-existing spending cap, has yet to sign a reworked policy bill into law and therefore they couldn’t offer a bid in time to meet last Monday’s deadline.
A ULA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) and several other top lawmakers are convinced that proceeds from the engine sales – each unit costs $25 million – are being funneled to Russian President Vladimir Putin “and his cronies.” They included text in the fiscal 2015 NDAA to ban its use after 2019.
But on Thursday, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), a senior member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, signaled that he plans to insert language into the enormous government-funding bill known as “omnibus” that would somehow ease the RD-180 prohibitions.
Shelby is “evaluating how the omnibus appropriations bill could ensure that, until an American-made rocket engine to replace the RD-180 is developed, the Air Force has access to the RD-180 to guarantee America’s access to space, eliminate a possible national security risk, and secure approximately 800 jobs in Alabama,” spokesperson Torrie Matous said in a statement.
ULA has a massive rocket factory in Shelby’s home state of Alabama.
In July, Shelby sent the Air Force a letter asking how many RD-180 engines it needed to avoid any interruptions to the service’s launch schedule. In a letter provided by the senator’s office, a top Air Force official replied the service needed 18 more engines through 2022 for “assured access to space and to enable competition.”
Matous said Shelby agrees the Russian-made engine should be phased out over time, noting he worked $143.6 million into the fiscal 2016 defense spending bill to develop a domestic alternative engine, in addition to the $220 million already included in fiscal 2015.
Capitol Hill lawmakers have spent the last few weeks doing the nitty-gritty business of writing a must-pass omnibus spending bill to keep the government running past December 11, when the current short-term continuing resolution is set to expire.
While a few hundred million dollars may not sound like much – or make much of a difference for Moscow’s economy, which has been shellacked by international economic sanctions – an intra-party squabble over rocket engines would be another hurdle for Congress to overcome before the crucial funding deadline.
The debate is already threatening to balloon into something more. McCain, a staunch advocate on defense issues who was put on a Russian sanctions list last year because of his repeated criticisms of Putin’s regime, fired off a letter to Appropriations Committee chair Thad Cochran (R-MS) urging him to block any attempt by Shelby to fund the RD-180 effort.
“I know you share my concerns about our continued use of Russian rockets in connection with military space launch and I ask you to respect the well-informed work my committee took in crafting our legislation,” he wrote in a November 19 missive.
He said ULA’s attempts to “manufacture a crisis by prematurely diminishing its stockpile of engines purchased prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea should be viewed with skepticism and scrutinized heavily” and aren’t a compelling enough reason to undermine sanctions against Moscow.
McCain, who commands the loyalty of the upper chamber’s defense hawks, added, “Avoiding year-over-year re-litigation of this matter between our authorizing and appropriations committees is in our best interest” because such a tit-for-tat would only delay eradicating Russian technology from the space- launch supply chain.
The Air Force isn’t expected to award the contract for the GPS satellite until March.