Congress, in the next three to four years, can have two national security space launch vehicles, competition for launches or it can get the Air Force off the Russian RD-180 engine, but it can’t have all three, the outgoing Air Force acquisition chief said Tuesday.

Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition William LaPlante, referring to lawmakers, said everyone wants off the RD-180, competition and two ways to get to space, but the ban on future purchases of the RD-180, championed by Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), has backed the Air Force into a corner.

NASA engineers successfully test the Russian-built RD-180 in 1998 at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala. Photo: NASA.
NASA engineers successfully test the Russian-built RD-180 in 1998 at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala. Photo: NASA.

“This space launch situation is serious for the country,” LaPlante told reporters during a press briefing at the Pentagon.

The United States, by law, has an assured access policy to space, in which the Defense Department must have two launch vehicles to lift national security satellites on demand. In fiscal year 2015, with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) in the process of being certified to launch national security payloads, Congress set off a series of events with the FY ’15 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that restricted incumbent launch provider United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) ability to procure the Russian engine that has powered a majority of DoD launches the last 10 years: the RD-180. The NDAA also banned Air Force use of the engine by 2019.

In response to competition, ULA decided to retire the Delta IV rocket later this decade while it pursues its own next-generation Vulcan launch system, leaving DoD with a potential gap in space launch competition in the next few years. ULA said last week the restricted ability to purchase additional RD-180s was one reason the joint Lockheed Martin– [LMT] Boeing [BA] venture decided not to participate in the Air Force’s first launch competition in almost a decade: the first Global Positioning System III (GPS III) launch in 2018.

The FY ’16 defense authorization bill that is awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature provides slight relief to ULA in a handful of additional RD-180s, but not enough for extensive future launch competition. Other reasons cited by ULA included not having “proper” accounting systems and the Air Force’s lowest price technically acceptable (LPTA) structure for the competition.

Space News last week reported Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) was considering adding language that would allow DoD, and ULA, access to additional RD-180s  to the FY ’16 omnibus appropriations bill. ULA has a major presence in Alabama.

But McCain fired back in a Nov. 19 letter to Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of both the full SAC and defense subcommittee, saying he was concerned to hear that SAC may be considering authorization language that would undermine sanctions on Russian rocket engines. McCain accused ULA of “manufacturing a crisis” by “prematurely diminishing” its stockpile of engines purchased before the Russian invasion of Crimea.

“I believe avoiding year-over-year re-litigation of this matter between our authorizing and appropriations committees is in our best interest,” McCain said. “Such back-and-forth only (delays) our shared desire to eliminate Russian technology from our space launch supply chain and injects instability into (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) program.”

LaPlante last week announced he would resign by the end of November to return to MITRE Corp., a federally-funded research and development center (FFRDC) where he spent two years as missile defense portfolio director. LaPlante’s deputy, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Military Deputy Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, will serve in his position until a replacement is named. LaPlante’s position is subject to Senate confirmation.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye declined comment Tuesday for this story. The Air Force was unable to respond by press time.