One of the biggest and most complex security challenges facing the Department of Defense today is providing assured access to space. The U.S. military and Intelligence Community (IC) are highly dependent on space-based systems for a host of vital missions: strategic warning, national intelligence, military ISR, navigation, strategic and tactical communications and global meteorology. The Pentagon maintains a number of satellite constellations that perform these missions and it must frequently launch new satellites into space in order to maintain or improve their performance. At present, assured access to space is provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) employing a combination of the venerable Atlas and Delta family of rockets.
There are two problems with the current solution for launch services. The first of these — and the lesser of the two — is that the only provider certified to launch national security payloads — highly classified military and IC satellites — is ULA. While ULA has done an excellent job in the decade since its creation, it is a monopoly. It has long been thought desirable to have more competition in launch services in the hope that this will provide the impetus for improved performance and reduced costs. A solution to this problem is on the horizon in the form of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket which is expected to achieve Air Force certification this year.
The second problem is the big one. The most important launch vehicle in the U.S. stable is the Atlas V which is the one on which ULA relies for the deployment of large national security payloads. But the Atlas V relies on a Russian rocket motor, the RD-180, for its first stage engine. When relations between the U.S. and Russia were good, this made sense. Now that the Russian government has annexed Crimea, supported a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, conducted mock nuclear attack missions against both European nations and the U.S. homeland and threatened to deploy advanced ballistic missiles against NATO, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea. In fact, senior Russian government officials have warned that they might cut off the supply of RD-180s in retaliation for Western sanctions on Russia.
Here is where the problem gets a bit complicated. At present, there is no alternative available to the RD-180. ULA has enough rocket engines in the warehouse to take it out to about the end of 2019. In the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed the Air Force to develop an American alternative to the RD-180 by the end of the decade and provided funding to begin this process. It is believed that it will cost a total of about $1 billion to develop this new engine.
There are two competitors seeking to provide the replacement for the RD-180. One is a company owned by Amazon called Blue Origin, which is developing a methane/oxygen engine, the BE-4. Such an engine has never been built before and would require a completely different/new rocket core, mainly because the BE-4 engine and tanks simply do not fit in Atlas V. Among other things, because methane is much less dense than kerosene, the engine needs more fuel resulting in a requirement for a much bigger tank inside the core structure. The other alternative is the AR-1, being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The AR-1 uses the same two fuels as the RD-180, kerosene and liquid oxygen. While the AR-1 would require some specific integration efforts, it would fit within the existing Atlas V core.
Tuesday, the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing titled “Assuring Assured Access to Space” to review current efforts to open up competition in launch services and replace the RD-180. The key question raised in the hearing was: could reliance on the RD-180 be ended by the prescribed date? Although several witnesses thought it would take longer, both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne believe they can be ready with a new engine by 2019. But that is not the whole story. The new engine and supporting structures would still need to be integrated into the rocket core. This would take time and add cost, particularly if a new rocket core is required because of the size of the engine, its fuel tanks and support structures.
In his closing remarks, subcommittee chairman Michael Rogers (R-AL) distilled all the testimony and discussion down to a simple, low risk strategy for success. “What I’d like to see is an RFP [request for proposal] for an American version of the RD-180. Methane has been discussed for decades but no one has been able to do it. I want to stay within our current technology realm. I don’t want to build a new rocket.” This seems the right way to go.
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