U.S. Needs to Weigh Rocket Engine Options, General Says

The U.S. needs to consider ending its reliance on the Russian-built rocket engines used to launch Pentagon satellites, a top Air Force official said.

While the Russian engine “has served us well, current uncertainty highlights the need to consider other options for assured access to space,” General William Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, said in remarks prepared for a Senate hearing today.

Shelton warned that developing a replacement would be a multiyear effort requiring “significant congressional support to maintain adequate funding.” The Obama administration has said a substitute might cost as much as $4.5 billion and take eight years to complete.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, said the U.S. must take action. “We simply cannot rely on the vicissitudes of a foreign supplier in a foreign nation for our national security,” he said at the start of the hearing.

The Russian RD-180 engines power Atlas V rockets made by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of the top two U.S. government contractors, Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. and Chicago-based Boeing Co. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the U.S. turned to the engines because of their lower cost and good quality, lawmakers said. By buying the technology, the U.S. also hoped to keep it out of the hands of its enemies, they said.

‘Most Critical’

The engine “is the most critical foreign component in terms of cost, schedule, and the technical difficulty of developing an alternative engine source,” Yool Kim, a senior engineer at Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, California-based research group, said in prepared testimony for the joint hearing of the Commerce panel and an Armed Services subcommittee.

Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. sued the Air Force in April to be allowed to compete for a share of the $67.6 billion Pentagon satellite launch market. The Lockheed-Boeing team has a lock on the market.

SpaceX, which has its own made-in-the-U.S. rocket engine, is seeking Air Force certification so it can compete with the Lockheed-Boeing venture. That approval may come later this year, Alan Estevez, a principal deputy undersecretary of defense, said in his prepared testimony.

Ukraine Invasion

Once SpaceX is certified, it can begin competing for the military and spy satellite launches. The Air Force yesterday started the competition for a 2016 launch by requesting companies’ proposals.

Musk has called the reliance on Russian engines a threat to U.S. national security, a concern echoed by members of Congress following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

In May, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said he would cut off future exports of engines used for U.S. military purposes. The same month, an independent panel advising the Pentagon said the U.S. needed to develop a domestic rocket engine.

The current supply of Russian engines is expected to last as long as two years, Shelton said at the hearing.

The Pentagon isn’t the only agency that would be hurt by disruptions in the Russian engine supply. NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the intelligence community would also be affected, retired Air Force Major General Howard Mitchell, who led the independent panel advising the Pentagon, said in written testimony.

NASA Launches

NASA has six launches planned using the Atlas V, agency Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in his testimony. If the Russian engine supply is cut off, federal agencies will have to figure out how to allocate what’s left, he said.

Other rockets could be used, though that “would entail significant fiscal impacts caused by the program delays required,” Lightfoot said.

One option is United Launch Alliance’s more expensive Delta IV rocket. Yet boosting its production might take years and additional costs, Rand’s Kim said.

A program to develop a replacement engine would “revitalize the liquid rocket propulsion industrial base, end reliance on a foreign supplier and aid the competitive outlook for the entire domestic launch industry,” Shelton said.

The House of Representatives last month agreed to spend $220 million to begin developing a domestic rocket engine -- a provision opposed by the White House because of the high cost. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s defense authorization bill set aside $100 million.

President Barack Obama’s administration said it was evaluating options to reduce reliance on including public-private partnerships “with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base and reduce costs through competition.”

United Launch Alliance said last month that it had signed contracts with “multiple” U.S. companies to develop concepts for a new engine.

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