Replacing Russian Rocket Engine Isn’t Easy, Pentagon Says

The Pentagon has no “great solution” to reduce its dependence on a Russian-made engine that powers the rocket used to launch U.S. military satellites, the Defense Department’s top weapons buyer said.

“We don’t have a great solution,” Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, said yesterday after testifying before a Senate committee. “We haven’t made any decisions yet.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Air Force to review its reliance on the rocket engine after tensions over Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region prompted questions from lawmakers about that long-time supply connection. United Launch Alliance LLC, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., uses the Russian-made RD-180 engine on Atlas V rockets.

Among the options the Air Force is outlining for Hagel are building versions in the U.S. under an existing license from the Russian maker or depending only on Delta-class rockets that use another engine, Kendall said. The U.S. also could accelerate the certification of new companies to launch satellites that don’t use the Russian engine, he said.

Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., a Hawthorne, California-based 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 dependence on the Russian engine.

‘Very Dependent’

SpaceX claimed in a complaint filed April 28 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington that the Air Force illegally shut it out of the market for military satellite launches by giving a monopoly to the joint venture of Chicago-based Boeing and Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed. Musk’s company says the contract funnels money from U.S. taxpayers to Russia’s military industrial complex and potentially to those under U.S. sanctions because of the continuing Ukraine crisis.

SpaceX won a court order yesterday temporarily blocking the Air Force from buying the Russian rocket engines. Judge Susan Braden’s preliminary injunction doesn’t cover existing contracts or payments. Braden said her decision was reached after considering public interest, national defense and security concerns.

The Air Force review, which hasn’t been submitted to Hagel, found that the Russian company, NPO Energomash, is “very dependent on their sales to us,” Kendall said. “That company really needs the sales. From that side of it, we’re in pretty good shape.”

Two-Year Supply

The options for minimizing a cutoff have drawbacks, such as harnessing the time and know-how to build the engines in the U.S. and limited production capability for the Delta rocket, Kendall said.

The United Launch Alliance has stockpiled about a two-year supply of the engines based on the current planned satellite launch schedule, Pentagon spokeswoman Maureen Schumann said in an e-mail in March.

The joint venture is also taking delivery of five more engines this year, ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said in an e-mailed statement.