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.
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.
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.
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.
The Air Force has continued to use the Russian RD-180 over U.S. competitors but says it is exploring alternatives.
“We are evaluating options to end the use of Russian engines, and we are working with the executive office of the president and our interagency partners to determine future actions to take,” Air Force Maj. Eric D. Badger told The Washington Times. “This includes looking at longer-term options to develop additional U.S.-built high-performance engines, as well as near-term risk mitigation efforts.”
Maj. Badger said the Air Force believes it has enough RD-180 engines to meet launch needs through spring 2016. Last month, it issued a request to industry to “help determine the best way to ensure that future launch requirements can be met by reliable, commercially-viable sources of production.”
American dependence on Russian rocket engines can be traced back to the 1990s when the newborn Russian Federation teamed with the U.S. to launch components for the International Space Station.
The Air Force needed rocket engines. When one of its contractors, Aerojet, heard rumors that the Russians may have leftover engines from the extinct Soviet moon program, U.S. officials traveled to Russia to investigate.
After inspecting the engines, the Americans were in awe. The Soviets had achieved something as early as the 1970s that they thought possible only in science fiction: rocket engines that recycled excess fuel exhausted from its pre-burners back into its combustion chamber.
This process, known as “oxygen rich closed cycle technology,” gave the Russian engines additional thrust while conserving fuel. Aerojet’s discovery sprung new business opportunities between Russia and U.S. defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin.
At the behest of U.S. officials six years later, Lockheed and Boeing merged their Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program into a joint venture known as United Launch Alliance, which has a virtual monopoly on the business.
But that could change soon.
A 2012 directive from the Defense Department ordered the Air Force to aggressively open the program to competition. The crisis in Ukraine has further heightened concern.
Even the United Launch Alliance concedes that it may be time to move on from the Russian-made rocket engine.
“While the RD-180 has been a remarkable success, we believe now is the right time to invest in a domestic engine, which is why we announced earlier this year that we have begun feasibility studies with multiple companies to build a new engine in the next five years,” spokeswoman Jessica Rye said.
United Launch Alliance’s lead competitor, Space Exploration Technologies, says its Falcon 9 is just as effective as RD-180-powered rockets and can be produced quicker at a lower cost. The satellite-launching rocket’s Merlin engine is powered by liquid hydrocarbon.
SpaceX did not hesitate to take advantage of the 2012 Pentagon directive to open competition to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. Although SpaceX was qualified to compete, the government closed the bidding before the Air Force granted official certification.
In April, SpaceX filed a bid protest in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims challenging the United Launch Alliance monopoly over launching national security satellites.
The complaint charges that the Boeing-Lockheed merger is “offensive to American values of open competition and fairness,” the effect of which “funnels millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to Russia’s military-industrial base, including monies that may flow to individuals on the U.S. sanctions list.”
Two days after the bid protest was filed, presiding Judge Susan G. Braden granted a preliminary injunction against importation of the Russian rocket engine, but only on the basis of personalized sanctions against Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who heads the Russian space program.
In response, Justice Department attorneys said payments were being made to NPO Energomash, not Mr. Rogozin. As a result, Judge Braden dissolved the injunction, clearing the path for the RD-180 to continue.
SpaceX spokesman John Taylor told The Times that the company cannot comment about pending litigation.
Some members of Congress, including those from Alabama and Colorado where United Launch Alliance has operations, have taken steps to criticize SpaceX by name while promoting the status quo.
Still, there is congressional support to open the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program for competition.
Mrs. Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and six other senators sent Mr. Hagel an April 14 letter expressing concern that “the Air Force’s recent budget proposal includes plans to compete zero Air Force missions in 2015.”
The letter charges that the Air Force budget reduces “competition opportunities for new entrants in the EELV program” and “comes at a time when the cost of national security launches has greatly increased.”
Mr. McCain raised his own concerns in letters he sent in April and May.
But until the Air Force allows SpaceX to compete for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program or the United Launch Alliance develops an alternative to the RD-180, Russian rocket engines will continue as the lone solution.
The Russians are happy about that, for the time being.
“Obviously, the high quality of Russian rocket engines is what attracts customers to use them for space launches,” Russian Federation Embassy Councilor Alexander Tromifov told The Times. “We stand ready to further use the potential of our space industry in developing fruitful cooperation on an equal and complementary basis.”
Last month, for the first time since the Ukraine crisis began, the United Launch Alliance received its first two Russian RD-180 rocket engines from NPO Energomash at its launch facility in Decatur, Alabama. Its next Air Force mission is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 16.