High-level Air Force and Defense Department officials are in “intense discussion” over whether to enact the waiver that would allow the service to use Russian-developed RD-180 rocket engines banned for future use in the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) Commander Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves told reporters June 2 he hoped a decision would be made soon. The Air Force is under pressure to get moving on its plan for future procurement of national security launch services as the FY ’15 NDAA requires the Air Force to develop a domestic next-generation rocket propulsion system and be off the RD-180 for space launch by 2019.

Sec. 1608 of the FY ’15 NDAA bans the use of Russian rocket engines in future Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launches. The Russian-developed RD-180 currently powers the bulk of national security space launches. But the law also provides an out, allowing the defense secretary to enact the waiver if he or she determines, and certifies to the congressional defense committees not later than 30 days before the waiver takes effect, that the waiver is necessary for United States national security interests and that launch services couldn’t be obtained at a fair and reasonable price without Russian designed or manufactured engines. The Air Force will soon hold its first competition for space launch services in the past 10 years.

DoD and Air Force officials disagree on who is responsible for requesting and carrying out the waiver.  Greaves said June 2 in a teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon that the waiver would be made at the office of the under secretary of defense acquisition, technology and logistics (AT&L) and defense secretary level, but a spokeswoman for Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L Frank Kendall said recently that nothing precludes delegation of a waiver authority below the level of the Secretary of Defense. DoD spokesman Maureen Schumann also said in April there are also no limitations in the law on who can request a waiver or whether a waiver even needs to be requested before it can be granted.

The Air Force on June 2 released a request for proposals (RFP) for next-generation rocket propulsion system prototypes as well as broad agency announcement (BAA) for propulsion technology maturation, formally starting the procurement process toward a next-generation launch system. Responses to the rocket propulsion system prototypes RFP are due by noon EDT on June 23, according to the notice on Federal Business Opportunities (FBO). Any objections to the terms of the RFP must be presented in writing to the Air Force by June 12.

Greaves also said the Air Force is developing a response to an industry trio that asked the service whether data rights to the Atlas V launch vehicle would be available for future space launch competitors. Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD], Dynetics and Schafer Corp. recently submitted an inquiry to the Air Force “exploring” the future use of the Atlas V, which is currently used by United Launch Alliance (ULA), along with the RD-180, to power the bulk of EELV launches. Aerojet Rocketdyne has proposed using its AR-1 as an RD-180 replacement. ULA has said it holds the data rights to the Atlas V and has no intention of selling or transferring them.

One initial hurdle in the rocket propulsion system proposal evaluation process will be the Air Force use of a “go/no go” decision for downselect. The service will use its evaluation of initial proposals to make a “go/no go” decision to request extended proposals, according to the RFP. Offerors whose proposals are “no go” will be notified and extended proposals will be accepted only from those offerors selected as “go.” Offerors who are told “no go” will be given the opportunity to be debriefed by the Air Force.

ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA].