- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The rising tensions with Russia over its aggression in Ukraine is creating national security concerns inside the Pentagon, where the military’s largest satellite program is reliant on a rocket engine produced by Moscow.

The Air Force said it has begun looking for alternatives to the RD-180 rocket engines for its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program — the fourth largest line item in the U.S. defense budget — now that Russia has threatened to cut off the technology in its tit-for-tat struggle with the U.S.


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Lawmakers and national security analysts said they were aghast that the military allowed itself to become so dependent on Russian military technology during an era of uneasy relations.

“What were we thinking? It’s clear now that relying on Russia for rocket engines was a policy based on hope, not good judgment,” said Michael V. Hayden, a four-star Air Force general who headed the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency before his retirement in 2009.

The Air Force started launching national security satellites with Russian-made rocket engines in 2000 during a time of warming relations under President Clinton. Washington and Moscow cooperated in the post-Soviet era on peaceful projects such as the International Space Station.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, stands in front of the Atlas V first stage booster which relies on Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines. Lawmakers and national security analysts said they were aghast that the military allowed itself to become so dependent on Russian military technology during an era of uneasy relations. (Associated Press)
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, stands in front of the Atlas V first ... more >

Relations began to sour near the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, especially after Russia invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008, raising speculation of a new Cold War era.


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But the Air Force has been slow to abandon the Russian engine, critics say.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, sent letters this spring to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and President Obama expressing concerns about the importation of the engines, hoping to prod the Air Force to action.

Last month, Gen. William Shelton, the departing head of the Air Force Space Command, told reporters that the U.S. needs to develop its own version of the RD-180 to regain “required world leadership.”

Threats by Moscow already have revealed the danger to American interests.

After Mr. Obama issued sanctions against high-powered Russian officials in March, Russian Deputy Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to cut off U.S. supplies of the rocket engine. The threat was not carried out, but concerns were raised.

“Relying on Russian rocket engines to launch American spy satellites may have not been a problem when the U.S. and Russia were working together to build the International Space Station, but it’s definitely a problem now,” said Michael Waller, a political warfare professor at the Washington-based Institute of World Politics and a vocal critic of Russian space dominance.

“The fact that we are dependent on the Russians for rocket engines gives Vladimir Putin a chokehold over the United States.”

The Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit, federally funded research and development center that works for the Air Force, said a U.S. version of the RD-180 may not be ready until 2022.

Until then, the Air Force will have to turn to private American space companies that use rocket engines wholly made in the U.S. or continue relying on the Russian engines.

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