HomeNews Article View

James Describes Way Forward to U.S-Built Complete Space-Launch System

By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity

PRINT  |  E-MAIL

WASHINGTON, January 27, 2016 — Everyone agrees the United States depends on space-based assets as part of the defense of the homeland and the ability to command and control forces worldwide, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning.

What’s at issue is launching these critical capabilities into orbit using Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines, she said.

The United Nations imposed sanctions against Russia last year for its actions in Ukraine and James and Frank Kendall, the defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, testified before the committee on DoD efforts to encourage commercial providers to develop systems not reliant on Russian products.

“Space is key to projecting credible and effective power around the world to support our allies and deter aggression,” James said. “Maintaining our advantage requires the ability to modernize and replenish our space architecture through a reliable launch capability.”

By law, this so-called “short access” to space must be provided by commercial companies. Right now, that requires having access to “about 18 RD-180” engines used in the first stage of the U.S. Atlas 5 rocket, James said.

But the Air Force is looking beyond the Russian rockets and is encouraging commercial companies to create a new generation of innovation in launch capabilities. “We’re optimistic about these new commercial entrants and have contributed our time, resources, energy and expertise to help develop their systems, understand needs, certify them for government applications, learn from their failures, and celebrate their successes,” she said.

No Alternative Yet

But while there is hope in the future, there is no alternative to the Russian rockets. “We must keep in mind the only launch vehicles that can reach the full range of orbit and carry our heaviest payloads today, remain the Atlas and Delta families,” James said.

United Launch Alliance builds and flies the Atlas and Delta for the U.S. government and other commercial customers. The company enjoys an unprecedented record of successful launches, 90 of which were accomplished under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, the secretary said.

“Funding for these government-mandated mission assurance requirements, along with the costs of maintaining launch infrastructure and a skilled workforce, came through a contract vehicle with the government known as the [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] launch capability arrangement, otherwise known as the ELC,” she said.

The Air Force wants to get away from this type of deal. “DoD must look for ways to meet the mandate of at least two commercially viable launch vehicles or family of launch vehicles capable of launching national security payloads,” she said. “In a global launch environment, commercial viability is all about cost.”

Public-Private Partnership

The answer appears to be a public-private partnership as the best way to ensure access to at least two domestic launch service providers, James said. “This business model I want to say again is a better deal for the taxpayer because it uses to a degree other people's money to help eliminate our dependency on the RD-180,” she said. “And our [fiscal year] 2017 budget requests will reflect this approach.”

The next budget request would ensure the availability of a complete launch system through public-private partnerships, she said, with launches of the new system set for fiscal 2022 or 2023. “We believe this is the best approach to achieve our mandate of assured access to space with two certified, commercially competitive domestic launch providers,” she said.

She asked the senators to remove language in the fiscal 2016 budget that restricts the use of these funds to engine development alone so the service can shift to the complete launch system.

“So far, of the $260 million authorized and appropriated … we have obligated just over $176 million,” she said. “The balance will be obligated soon pending of course successful outcome on negotiations with industry.”

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)