Pentagon Asks Air Force About Russia Rocket Engine

Pentagon officials have asked the Air Force to review whether the use of Russian engines on rockets from a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. team creates a national security risk.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week at a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing that a review was needed after Russia’s incursion into the Crimea and threats to the Ukraine prompted a reassessment of U.S.-Russia relations.

United Launch Alliance LLC, the Lockheed-Boeing joint venture, uses Russian engines on Atlas V rockets the Pentagon depends on to launch military satellites. Tensions over Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region has sparked questions about that supply connection.

The Pentagon purchases launch services from United Launch Alliance, including the Atlas and Boeing Delta models that use different engines. Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed used the Russian-made RD-180 engine for years on its Atlas V rocket before joining Chicago-based Boeing in the alliance.

“The department had recently completed an assessment of the use of foreign components” including the RD-180 engine, Maureen Schumann, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in an e-mail statement.

“In light of the current situation, we have directed the Air Force perform an additional review to ensure we completely understand the implications, including supply interruptions, of using foreign components” in the program, she said.

Pentagon officials estimate it would cost U.S. companies as much as $1 billion to produce the engine domestically and take as long as five years, Schumann said.

Security Interest

Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., a company that’s trying to break into the military launch market, said at a March 5 congressional hearing that launches may be at risk because of Boeing’s and Lockheed’s dependence on the Russian engine.

Musk, who also is chairman and chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc., said the Atlas V rockets should be phased out for the “long-term security interest of the country.”

In her statement, Schumann said since the beginning of the program in 1995 “there has been concern about the use of foreign components in the launch vehicle, particularly the Russian RD-180 engine.”.

“The Air Force regularly reviews and analyzes various components” of the program to include “any potential risks associated with the use of RD-180 engines,” she said.

The joint venture “has stockpiled about a two-year supply of the engines” based on the current planned satellite launch schedule.

If the RD-180 supply is restricted, the Defense Department “would prioritize” the engines’ use for the highest value satellites, she said.