The U.S. military depends heavily on satellites for secure communications, weather forecasts, intelligence gathering and early warning of missile attack. There are some military missions that can only be conducted effectively from space, because of the unique perspective orbital systems offer on what is happening below, and their ability to provide instantaneous links between forces scattered around the globe. But satellites don’t last forever, and even if they did the advance of technology would dictate their periodic replacement.
So assured access to space is essential to sustaining America’s global security posture. For instance, without a constellation of space-based infrared sensors to detect hostile missile launches, Washington might not know a nuclear attack was occurring in time to respond — thereby making stable deterrence impossible. Without a network of orbital transponders, there would be no reliable way to control drones flying over remote battlefields or communicate with warships at sea.
You’d think the criticality of such functions would be sufficient to forge a consensus among policymakers and legislators on what steps are needed to guarantee that military access to space is never at risk. If you thought that, though, you’d be wrong. A bitter controversy is currently unfolding in Congress about how to fund the rockets that loft military satellites into orbit, and meanwhile the Pentagon is shifting its strategy for securing launch services in a fashion that could impair timely access to space for many years to come.
Until recently, military access to space depended on one company: United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin created in 2006 when the two leading U.S. space companies convinced the government they could not make a profit operating their launch businesses separately. (Both companies contribute to my think tank; Lockheed is a consulting client.) ULA’s launch services aren’t cheap, but in over a hundred launches since it was formed, the venture has never lost a payload. No other launch provider can say that.
However, the viability of the United Launch Alliance business model is now at risk for two reasons. First, members of Congress led by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) want ULA to stop using Russian rocket engines that provide the first stage for its workhorse Atlas V launch vehicle, and soon — three years from now to be exact, when the Pentagon’s current multiyear contract with ULA runs out. Second, the Air Force wants to save money by funding competitors to ULA, most notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
With regard to using Russian engines, that arrangement stretches back to when ULA co-owner Lockheed Martin was first developing Atlas V in the 1990s. Washington liked the idea of buying engines from Russia, because it figured that would keep former Soviet rocket scientists engaged in peaceful pursuits. But after Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2014, it dawned on McCain and others that U.S. military launches depended on technology from a country that might not be a friend. Paying Putin’s Russia for rocket engines became unpopular.
If that had been the only challenge ULA faced, there would have been a quick solution: pay Aerojet Rocketdyne, the primary propulsion provider on all of ULA’s launch vehicles, to develop a replacement for the Russian first-stage engines. Aerojet (a modest contributor to my think tank) is the only U.S. company that has ever developed and flown large booster engines, and it has a thorough understanding of the kerosene-based propulsion technology the Russians supply for Atlas V.
But ULA had another problem. SpaceX and other non-traditional launch providers had convinced some members of Congress and the White House that they could deliver much cheaper access to space. Once they were certified to sell to the Air Force — the military’s lead service for space missions — it would be real tough for ULA to compete. Under pressure from Congress, the Pentagon began looking more favorably on new suppliers despite their sketchy track records, embracing competition as a way of reducing costs while assuring space access.
This was probably a dumb idea. If you lose one billion-dollar satellite, any cost savings from paying less for launch services are going to look ephemeral. ULA’s perfect track record on launches is unique, so it’s a safe bet that whatever arrangement replaces it will indeed lead to satellite losses. And ULA already offered two different launch vehicles – Atlas and Delta — that could be used interchangeably, so access to space was assured even if something went wrong with one of the systems (which it never has).
But the government customer wasn’t thinking that way, having fallen for the illusion that competition always delivers the best outcome. So ULA had to come up with something to match the excitement Elon Musk was generating at a time when its future revenues and returns looked dicey. The answer was a completely new propulsion system based on methane (natural gas) being developed by Jeff Bezos start-up Blue Origin. And ULA didn’t propose just to develop a new engine using private money, it proposed to put the engine in a new launch vehicle.
The new launch vehicle that would replace Atlas is called Vulcan, and it’s a pretty interesting concept. But there’s an issue. In fact there are two issues. First, nobody has ever built methane-powered rocket engines anywhere near as big as ULA and Blue Origin are proposing. There’s probably a reason for that. And second, if you are going to develop both a new engine and a new launch vehicle — something ULA has never done before — it is going to take a while. So you’re not going to be jettisoning those Russian engines anytime soon.
That has Senator McCain hopping mad, and a lot of other legislators concerned. When a ULA supporter managed to get the company relief from congressional language barring use of Russian engines on military launches after 2019, McCain vowed he would do everything within his power to reverse the change. So as it struggles to find a way of keeping its business viable in a rapidly changing marketplace, ULA now faces the prospect that its plan for becoming more competitive will be opposed by the most combative legislator in the U.S. Senate.
McCain hasn’t limited his criticism to ULA. He also is angry with the Air Force for dissipating funding appropriated for new engine technology on too many projects, and taking too long to sign contracts. The way he sees it, the Air Force is dragging its feet on finding a replacement for the Russian engines, rather than complying with Congressional intent. The Air Force’s latest gambit of seeking to shift its developmental focus from engines to launch vehicles isn’t likely to sit well with McCain, since it would leave engine selection up to the launch providers.
The Air Force’s position is that there is no way a new engine can be developed in time to comply with the 2019 deadline McCain and others favor. ULA and Blue Origin have built a high degree of concurrency into the development schedule for their methane engine — which typically translates into added risk — and yet still cannot comply with the deadline given the need to test and certify both a new engine and a new launch vehicle. So if Congress sticks with the 2019 cutoff date on using Russian rockets, ULA would have to stop offering the Atlas for military launches.
It would still have its Delta IV launch vehicle, which uses Aerojet-built engines, but most observers say that vehicle cannot compete on a price basis with SpaceX’s Falcon 9. So the way the Air Force sees it, either ULA gets to continue using Russian engines on its Atlas vehicle or SpaceX becomes a de facto launch monopoly the way ULA once was. Or said differently, either America’s military remains dependent on its most dangerous adversary to launch spy satellites, or it switches to a new domestic launch provider whose reliability is far less certain.
There’s a way out of this dilemma, but it will require United Launch Alliance to rethink its business strategy. Recognizing that something might go wrong with its preferred approach of developing a next-generation methane engine, ULA has crafted a backup plan that would allow it to buy a new kerosene-based engine that Aerojet has been developing for several years. The Aerojet engine would eliminate many of the complexities associated with switching to methane, and could be fitted into either the existing Atlas booster or its successor.
Most importantly, Aerojet says it can meet the 2019 deadline Senator McCain is intent on imposing. ULA has said publicly that it thinks development of the Aerojet engine is not as far along as the Blue Origin engine, but Aerojet has a long track record on developing engines and the technology is mature. Neither of those things is true of the Blue Origin alternative. As Aerojet’s lead executive for new propulsion systems told Inside the Air Force on January 8, “We feel very confident about 2019… It’s not like we’re doing this for the first time.”
So here’s the bottom line. If United Launch Alliance down-selects to the Aerojet engine, then it can probably stop using Russian engines a lot sooner. But that requires the Air Force to focus its developmental funding on meeting the 2019 deadline rather than throwing money at every neat idea that comes along. If the service does that, then the nation’s most reliable launch provider can remain profitable without relying on Russian technology into the next decade. If the Air Force doesn’t focus, then the military’s future access to space looks less than assured.
This article was written by Loren Thompson from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.