Last year, as Moscow began its campaign to conquer the Ukraine and relations between the West and Russia deteriorated, the U.S. Senate passed a law forbidding the U.S. military from buying additional launch services from any company using Russian-designed or manufactured rocket engines. It further directed the Air Force to develop a domestic alternative engine by 2019. At the time, such services were provided by a single entity, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) which required a Russian-built engine, the RD-180 as the first stage for its Atlas V heavy lift vehicle. ULA, which is under contract with the Air Force for some 36 launches over the next five years, has already bought around 30 RD-180s which it expects will carry it to the end of the decade.
The Senate’s action made eminent sense, politically, economically and militarily. What kind of signal would it have sent to the Kremlin if the United States was imposing sanctions on the Russian regime and at the same time continued to buy rocket motors from it? In addition, Russian government officials warned that they might retaliate against the United States by halting sales of the RD-180. It made no sense to be sending hundreds of millions of dollars to a Russian rocket motor company, one with deep ties to their military while allowing the U.S. rocket motor industrial base to further decline. Then there is the obvious national security problem associated with maintaining dependence on anything Russian for much of our military’s access to space.
But now, ULA is warning that the Congressionally-mandated goal of developing a domestic rocket engine by 2019 may be too aggressive and create a risk for the military’s ability to access space. Some concern is certainly warranted. No one wants to risk vital and expensive national security payloads on a launch vehicle that hasn’t been fully tested and certified. This has been the primary issue preventing SpaceX from entering the defense launch business.
The U.S. competitors to replace the RD-180 appear confident that they can make the 2019 deadline. Aeroject-Rocketdyne has great experience in the rocket motor business and has R&D contracts with both NASA and the Air Force to develop the components for a new liquid fueled first stage engine. Another company, Amazon’s Blue Origin, has been experimenting for a number of years with a methane-powered engine.
The real risk that must be addressed is that of continuing U.S. reliance on the RD-180 as Moscow continues its aggression against Ukraine and relations between Russia and the West deteriorate. Nor is this condition likely to reverse itself anytime soon. Consider the words of the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral James Clapper, just yesterday:
“Moscow sees itself in a direct confrontation with the West over Ukraine and will be very prone to overreact to U.S. actions. Putin’s goals are to keep Ukraine out of NATO and to ensure that separatists control an autonomous entity within Ukraine. He wants Moscow to retain leverage over Kiev, and Crimea in his view is simply not negotiable. Russian dominance over the former Soviet space is Russia’s highest foreign policy goal.”
Lest we forget, some of that former Soviet space is in NATO. Any attempt by Putin to dominate the Baltic states would, at a minimum, result in a new Cold War and could, in the worst case, lead to war.
The far greater risk to national security is continued reliance on the RD-180. The Air Force really has no choice but to move with all speed to develop and certify an alternative U.S. made rocket engine. The Air Force has taken the right first step by putting money in its FY2016 budget submission to further ongoing technical risk reduction efforts and support a full and open competition. Cross your fingers that we have until the end of the decade to develop and certify a replacement rocket engine.
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