No military in the world is as critically dependent as ours on space. Reliance on space assets for military purposes requires assured access and assured access is a function, in turn, of the ability to lift payloads into space at a variety of altitudes and orbital geometries.
U.S. military access to space is critically dependent on the goodwill of the autocrat of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin. Why? Because the primary U.S. space launch vehicle, the Atlas V, relies on a Russian-built rocket engine, the RD-180, as its first stage. It made sense back when U.S.-Russian relations were relatively good, for the Atlas V’s operator, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), to contract with the Russian producer for engines.
Following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Congress in the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act prohibited ULA from purchasing any additional engines beyond what it bought prior to Moscow’s aggression and to halt all launches employing the RD-180 by 2020. It also ordered the Air Force as executive agent for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program to accelerate work on a U.S.-designed and built first stage for the Atlas V. Several companies including Amazon subsidiary Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne are working on an RD-180 alternative. SpaceX is also positioned to begin to provide competitive launch services for some national security payloads.
The leadership of ULA has expressed concern that an alternative to the RD-180 might not be available by 2020. It also claims it will not have enough RD-180s to meet all its launch obligations between now and 2020. ULA recently warned that it would not be able to bid on the contract to launch the next GPS III satellite. This is somewhat puzzling since the company chose to allocate scarce RD-180 equipped Atlas V’s to non-critical NASA missions. The company requested a Pentagon waiver of the prohibition on purchases of additional RD-180s which the department has denied.
Dependence on the RD-180 no longer makes sense. Relations between the U.S. and Russia are worse today than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Senior administration officials say privately that they do not expect relations to improve as long as Putin is in power. In fact, they could get a lot worse. Just look at Russia’s behavior since the invasion of Crimea. We may be heading for a new Cold War.
The ULA leadership appears oblivious to this possibility. In fact, it is making decisions, such as misallocating available Atlas Vs, which could seriously threaten this nation’s assured access to space. As a result, it is risking its own future as well as national security.
ULA needs to stop acting as if it is 2005. Russian behavior makes it a virtual certainty that Congress will not relent on its demands to end use of the RD-180. If the Obama Administration’s Pentagon has denied ULA’s request for a waiver there is no possibility for relief in the next administration, regardless of who wins the 2016 election. ULA should help U.S. engine companies meet the target date for a new domestically-produced Atlas V rocket engine.
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