Ending US Dependence on Russian Rocket Engines: The Danger of Further Delays


By Richard Weitz

The U.S. Congress has a welcome opportunity to end U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines for its national security satellites. However, Congress needs to proceed with the existing agreed timetable to avoid unnecessary deals that risk U.S. national security.

Members recognize that the United States can leverage the strengths of the U.S. private sector to promote the commercial development of space launch systems for national security as well as civilian missions.

Congressional legislation mandates ending launching of U.S. national security satellites on rockets employing Russia’s RD-180 enginefor propulsion in less than three years from now.

To maintain a broad competitive industrial base for space launch vehicles, the Air Force has provided targeted funding to several firms developing launch system prototypes. These Launch Service Agreements (LSA),represent Other Transaction Authority (cost-sharing) grants the Air Force makes to various firms.

They help defray their financial expense in making the changes necessary to certify that their commercial rockets can fulfill the unique requirements for launching national security payloads, such as military satellites.

This process supports an accelerated timeline, while maintaining fair and open competition, to end U.S. dependence on RD-180 engines by the congressionally mandated date of December 31, 2022.

The planned launches of the existing ULA Atlas 5 rocket will soon exhaust thedwindling number of these enginesunder U.S. possession in any case.

In 2016, the Defense Department awarded initial contractsto SpaceX, Aerojet Rocketdyne (AJRD), Orbital ATK, and United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of the Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corporations that previously provided Titan and Atlas rockets, to develop U.S.-made rocket engines.

In October 2018, the Pentagon selected three companies–Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems ((formerly Orbital ATK), and ULA—to receive additional funding to research and design space launch vehicles using these U.S.-manufactured propulsion systems.

The Air Force will review the performance of these three LSA Phase 1 systems:

  • Northrop Grumman’s OmegA (employing the company’s Castor engines for its first two stages and Aerojet’s RL10 engine for its third stage)
  • Blue Origin’s New Glenn (with seven reusable BE-4 engines for its first stage, a BE-4U re-ignitable engine for stage two, and BE-3U engines for its third stage); and
  • ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rockets(with Blue Origin’s BE-4engine for its lower stage and Aerojet’s Rocketdyne engine for the Vulcan’s upper stage).

In Fiscal Year 2020, the military will designate two of them to receive a block of contracts during the five-year LSA Phase 2 period, scheduled to begin in 2022. Formally termed the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement(EELV), the two companies will launch up to sixdefense payloads annually, following full-scale flight tests of new space launch vehicles.

The third, non-selected firm, as well as other pioneering private sector space companies like SpaceX, can still submit bids for future U.S. national security payload contracts.

SpaceX is already a certified EELV launch provider and has received several defense contracts for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, equippedwith the company’s U.S.-manufactured Merlin engines.

The Air Force contract given to SpaceX in 2016 also subsidized the creation of its Raptor engine, which will power its future Big Falcon spacecraft and perhaps the Falcon 9.

During a March 27 hearingof the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommitteeon “Military Space Operations, Policy and Programs,” Lieutenant General David D. Thompson, USAF Vice Commander, Air Force Space Command, recommitted the Air Force to work closely with firms not selected for Phase 2 to allow them to compete effectively for future national security launch opportunities.

To sustain America’s assured access to space, the Air Force has committedto “facilitate the development of three domestic launch system prototypes and enable the future competitive selection of two national security space launch service providers for future procurements.”

The Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, has calledthe present Launch Service Procurement (LSP) an outstanding example of how we are “fielding tomorrow’s Air Force faster and smarter.”

The LSP goal of reducing dependence on Russian rocket propulsion enjoys widespread support in the U.S. national security community. Yet, Adam Smith, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote to Wilson at the end of March to propose a postponementin the LSA processand to review the program’s selection process. This intervention represents a counterproductive, potentially damaging policy proscription.

Any further delay in issuing LSP Request for Proposals would result in a critical misstep given the urgent need to revitalize the U.S. national security space launch fleet by developing several capable rocket manufacturers.

The Pentagon and Congress should proceed as scheduled to issue the RFPs for these next-generation systems in accordance with the meticulously agreed procedure, while also reaffirming and clarifying how non-Phase 2 selectees will continue to enjoy opportunities to contribute to critical U.S. national security space missions.

The featured photo shows the aft of a ULA Atlas V rocket and the dual-nozzle RD-180 engine. Photo Credit: United Launch Alliance