Senate Armed Services Committee Limits ULA Engines

John McCain
John McCain

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday that limits United Launch Alliance (ULA) to purchasing nine Russian-made RD-180 engines for use in the first stage of the company’s Atlas V booster to launch national security payloads.

The move sets up a showdown with the House Armed Services Committee, which earlier put the number of engines ULA could purchase at 18. ULA and the U.S. Air Force support the higher number, saying the engines are needed to meet military launch needs.

“Despite the efforts of the committee, United States assured access to space continues to rely on Russian rocket engines, the purchase of which provide financial benefit to aides and advisors to Vladimir Putin – including individuals sanctioned by the United States – and subsidizes the Russian military-industrial base,” SASC said in a press release.

“This is unacceptable at a time when Russia continues to occupy Crimea, destabilize Ukraine, menace our NATO allies, send weapons to Iran, violate the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and bomb U.S.-backed forces in Syria fighting the Assad regime,” the committee said.

The Senate measure also repeals a provision in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill that removed any limits on RD-180 purchases. The provision, added by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), infuriated SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ).

When ULA runs out of Russian engines, it would be forced to bid on national security launches using its Delta IV booster. However, that rocket is oversized and overpriced for most military payloads. The FAA estimates prices for ULA launches as:

Atlas V
Payload: 8,123-18,814 kg (17,908-41,478 lbs)
Estimated Price per Launch: $110M-$230M

Delta IV
Payload: 9,420-28,790 kg (20,768-63,471 lbs)
Estimated Price per Launch: $164M-$400M

The Delta IV would be at a greater disadvantage competing against SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters are priced at $61.2 million and $90 million, respectively.

The NDAA would allow funds being spent by the U.S. Air Force to develop new launch vehicle technology to be used to offset the extra costs.

“Given the urgency of eliminating reliance on Russian engines, the NDAA would allow for up to half of the funds made available for the development of a replacement launch vehicle or launch propulsion system to be made available for offsetting any potential increase in launch costs as a result of prohibitions on Russian rocket engines,” the committee said.

“With $1.2 billion budgeted from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2021 for the launch replacement effort and $453 million already appropriated in fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016, there is more than sufficient funding available and budgeted for a replacement propulsion system or launch vehicle and to offset any additional costs required in meeting our assured access to space requirements without the use of Russian rocket engines,” the committee added.

This is in opposition to ULA’s strategy, which is to continue using Atlas V until a replacement launch vehicle is available while phasing out use of the Delta IV except for its most powerful variant, which can lift the heaviest national defense payloads.

Almost all of ULA’s manifest is composed of military payloads, and most of those are launched on Atlas V boosters. A sharp reduction in Atlas V launches has the potential of raising unit costs.

A key issue is how soon ULA can develop a replacement for the RD-180 engine. The company is working with Blue Origin on a new launch vehicle called Vulcan that would utilize Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in its first stage. A new ACES upper stage would replace the Centaur used on both the Atlas V and Delta IV.

ULA has said the new booster, which would be more powerful than the Atlas V, would be ready to fly in 2019. However, it would take several years before the rocket could be certified to carry vital and expensive national security payloads. Thus, the need for more RD-180 engines to cover the transition period.

Congress has been pushing ULA to pursue a plan to replace the RD-180 in the Atlas V with Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine. Backers of this plan say it is a simpler and cheaper option that would allow the United States to end use of Russian-made engines sooner.

ULA is actually working with both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne on the BE-4 and AR-1 engines. The latter engine is considered a backup to the BE-4.


  • Shaun Heath

    So does McCain get worked up over Orbital using RD-181’s for the Antares?

  • Not a bit. It’s a private launcher for primarily NASA cargo payloads.

    I thought that was common knowledge.

  • Douglas Messier

    No. I guess because Antares isn’t certified to carry defense payloads. And with a Russian engine, it never will be.

    The end result is the same. Orbital ATK is providing funds to help fuel Putin’s military industrial complex, which is now being consolidated under one state-owned corporation, Roscosmos.

    Same thing with the hundreds of millions of dollars NASA is paying for Soyuz seats while Congress under funds commercial crew. That’s providing Putin with a lot more money than the RD-180 engine sales.

  • duheagle

    That is common knowledge. So is the fact that, as Doug reminds, NASA is paying through the nose for Soyuz seats. Thing is, it’s allegedly the fact that the RD-180 sales are “enriching” the Russians that is the basis for McCain’s ceaseless kvetching. Problem is, he doesn’t get exercised about either Orbital’s RD-181’s or NASA’s Soyuz seat buys. That calls into serious question his expressed rationale for all the high-profile emo over the RD-180. I don’t know what his real reason is for being so bent out of shape about the RD-180. But the reason he offers for public consumption doesn’t pass the smell test.

    As for his latest maneuver in the on-going RD-180 wars, I expect this 9-engine limitation to be either removed by the time the measure containing it is actually voted on by the full Senate or removed later in conference with the House. I don’t think McCain has much in the way of backup in the Senate for this jihad he’s running. Sen. Shelby does have such backup and he has demonstrated repeatedly that he’s much better than McCain in a close-quarters knife fight.

  • Nine engines? Hmmm … that would be one big rocket.

    What’s the throttle limit on an RD-180? haha.

  • Shaun Heath

    All of these launchers are private – Atlas, Delta, Antares. With some government seed money and government payloads. The difference that I could see was that the Atlas and Delta were armed services purchases and Antares was not. So maybe that difference in domain is what keeps the senator focused on just the legacy vehicles.

    That said, the money still flows back to Russia, which was McCain’s beef.

    Another question – does Orbital buy/import their engines directly, or do they import via RD Amross, which I believe was another sore spot for the senator?

  • Actually all those new launchers were not monopolies subsidized by huge cost plus maintenance contracts. Until those launchers materialized ULA could not have been considered a commercial company, it’s sole purpose was to launch DoD and NRO satellites (including the occasional NASA mission) since any commercial aspirations evaporated forcing the merger of the companies and rebranding it as ULA. They’ve only recently flown commercial missions and a NASA resupply mission for Orbital/ATK. And McCain has NO BEEF with anyone else using those engines in the free market for non DoD and NRO missions. There is no law forbidding it as far as I know, and this is indeed America.

    To get off the RD-180 for the DoD and the NRO, America needs to be forced into propulsion development apparently, just like NASA had to be forced into it as well, via the COTS program.

  • windbourne

    it does not matter if the difference is 60 million or 100 million. It is still going to run as a far more expensive solution and we will be subsidizing ULA a great deal.
    As such, I would rather spend 100M more and keep the work here, as opposed to spending 60 million more and send it to Russia.

  • windbourne

    how many missions will Antares fly for the gov? Not that many more.

  • PK Sink

    “I don’t know what his real reason is for being so bent out of shape about the RD-180.”

    Yeah, this does look kinda personal. But against who, I don’t know. However, I’m getting much more pleasure watching him try to stick a knife into Russian engines, than I did watching Shelby try to stick a knife into Commercial Space.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Maybe John just hates Boeing and Lockheed/ULA because they screw us the most?

  • patb2009

    ULA is national security and he chairs Armed services.
    NASA is under Commerce