U.S. Armed Services Committee Protects Russian Rocket RD-180 Program

Posted: March 19, 2015 in Sanctions on Russia Meaningless, Technology and Energy, War Is The New Economy

SOURCE: http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/air-space/space/2015/03/18/hasc-looking-to-alter-rd180-restriction/24977293/

SEE ALSO: U.S. DoD Against Replacing Russian RD-180 Program


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HASC Looking to Alter RD-180 Restriction

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WASHINGTON — There is a growing sense on the Hill that language designed to limit the procurement of Russian engines for military space launches needs to be altered to avoid unexpected fallout.

Both Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee, and the panel’s ranking member Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., indicated a belief that section 1608 of last year’s National Defense Authorization Act needs to be re-opened and cleaned up to ensure the United Launch Alliance (ULA) can use its full lot of purchased RD-180 engines.

In a marathon double-hearing, Roger’s committee questioned, first, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell and ULA head Tory Bruno, and then Pentagon representatives, about whether the language, which restricted the use of RD-180 engines on the Atlas V launch vehicle to those that were purchased before the February invasion of Ukraine, was being properly interpreted.

The situation Congress is dealing with is complicated, to put it lightly. The Hill passed 1608 with the intention of allowing ULA to use 14 engines it was already on contract for before the Russian invasion. However, Pentagon lawyers have apparently concluded that the language, as written, allows ULA to use only five of those 14.

At the same time, ULA has decided it will close down its Delta IV medium launch vehicle line by 2018, leaving it just with the Atlas V and the Delta Heavy, used only every few years for specialized missions. Without the extra RD-180 engines, ULA says, it will run out of the ability to compete for competitive launches after 2019.

That would leave SpaceX’s Falcon 9 – which members of Congress, SpaceX executives and US Air Force officials alike continue to say will be certified by June – as the only military space launch option for the Air Force. Meanwhile, costs for the Delta IV Heavy would increase, potentially to as high as $1 billion per launch, Bruno said.

The reverse-monopoly is an idea ULA, which SpaceX been hammering on for being a monopoly during the last decade, has taken great pains to point out. So did Rogers, who tried hard to get Shotwell to use the “monopoly” word when describing that situation before eventually giving up and using it himself.

“You would have a monopoly, is where I’m going with this, and I just want you to acknowledge it,” Rogers said after a back and forth with Shotwell. “You would have a monopoly on that work.”

Rogers and Cooper alike made it clear they were sympathetic to the need for ULA to have access to those extra engines.

“We’re going to try and statutorily clarify that it was our congressional intent that those 14 engines be used,” Rogers said. “That will require both the House and Senate to concur on that but that’s what we’re going to try and clear up.”

Speaking to Defense News, Cooper said “the Congress made a mistake” with its language.

“It was a drafting error and we need a technical correction to fix that,” Cooper said. “I thought that should be made more explicit.”

While the subcommittee’s leadership might be in agreement, not everyone on the Hill is. Rogers noted that Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, seems to disagree with that interpretation.

“We’re helping him understand the national security implications of that,” Rogers added. “Hopefully it results in what is not a problematic remedy, but I’ve been in congress 13 years. Nothing is easy.”

Asked about the RD-180 issue on March 16, Rep. Mac Thornberry, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said he wants to “understand much more clearly why they don’t think that we can have an American engine.”

I would say the anxieties about being dependent on a Russian engine have only grown as we’ve seen what the aggression of Russia in a variety of spheres,” he added. “So is this a question of dollars? Is it technology? Is it bureaucracy? What’s the issue here? That’s what we would need to understand better in order to answer that question.”

In the meantime, the Air Force is trying to sort through its options. Bill LaPlante, the service’s acquisition head, said the Pentagon lawyers’ reading of the law is “quite restrictive.”

If that’s the intent of the Congress, we can do that,” LaPlante said after the hearing. “The top legal experts in the department are reading it that way. If that wasn’t their intent, [Congress] can change the language and we certainly will adhere to it.”

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