The U.S. military is heavily dependent on satellites for intelligence, connectivity and navigational guidance to ensure mission success. As a result, the Pentagon needs more RD-180 Russian-made engines, used in the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rocket. These engines guarantee America has unrestricted and affordable access to space to launch critical military satellites into orbit. The House Armed Services Committee authorized the full purchase of the Department of Defense’s Russian engine request in its 2017 defense bill, but the version currently in the Senate only allows the Pentagon to buy four. If the Senate approach prevails, U.S. military operations could be compromised.
Since RD-180s are made in Russia, the reliability of the engine supply came into question in 2014 after Moscow invaded Ukraine. This worry was not just paranoia — the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened Moscow would ban the U.S. from using Russian-made rocket engines for military launches. As a result, the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Air Force to stop using Russian-made rocket engines.
Senator John McCain is especially against the use of RD-180s. McCain is concerned that continuing to use the Russian engine would prolong dependence on Moscow while Russia occupies Crimea and violates the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, among other security concerns. However, Frank Kendall, under secretary for defense acquisition, technology, and logistics, has noted that halting the use of RD-180s immediately will trigger extra costs and possibly compromise assured access to space.
Congress and the Pentagon agree that a domestic engine must be developed to replace the RD-180. Creating a new engine will take time. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James testified that it takes about six to seven years to develop an engine and another year or two to certify. According to some estimates, a U.S. built engine will not be approved for national security missions prior to 2022, and U.S. military launches cannot be put on hold until an alternative American rocket engine is developed and tested.
The Delta IV launch vehicle, used for heavy military satellites, could be utilized to fulfill Atlas V missions, but costs would drastically increase. Defense spending has suffered huge funding cuts as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act followed by sequestration, translating into almost $1 trillion in cuts. The Department of Defense must be especially cautious of each dollar it spends in such a fiscal environment.
SpaceX has argued that its new rocket, Falcon 9, could be used as a cheaper alternative to the Atlas V and Delta IV. The problem with using SpaceX’s rocket is that its launch vehicles cannot reachhalf of the orbits the military needs to access — SpaceX is only able to launch four of the eight orbits the military uses. This means the Air Force would have to spend extra taxpayer dollars to use the Delta IV rockets for missions unreachable by SpaceX. Such a move could put other critical military programs in financial risk such as the Ground-based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program.
The Air Force plans to replace its intercontinental ballistic missiles that make up one third of the strategic deterrent with GBSD in 2027. These missiles are necessary because they shorten the time needed to execute the president’s response to a nuclear attack and increase the total number of targets an adversary would have to destroy to compromise America’s deterrent. The cost to develop and deploy the new weapons is $62.3 billion from fiscal year 2015 through fiscal year 2044. Clearly, the Air Force needs to spend its funds wisely to fund GBSD and other programs necessary to American security.
If Russian engines are banned America would become completely dependent on the Delta IV for some critical military missions. If Delta IV were to experience technical issues, satellites vital to missile warning and communication will not be launched and cannot provide necessary information. Recent launch failures by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are reminders that space launch is not easy, and underscore the uniqueness of ULA’s perfect launch record.
Furthermore, Congress is contradicting itself when it comes to its desire to increase competition of space launches to decrease costs. Monopolies over launch missions will unintentionally be created if Russian engines are banned: the Falcon 9 would likely be utilized for orbits it can reach and more money would have to be spent to utilize the Delta IV for launches it can only currently attain. In effect, ULA will be uncompetitive when it comes to bids where the cheaper Falcon 9 could be utilized.
ULA and space startup BlueOrigin have been developing the ability to produce an American replacement engine called the BE-4 that will be used with a new launch vehicle, Vulcan. This move will allow ULA to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in regards to cost. SpaceX is also working on a launch vehicle aimed to accomplish all national security orbits. The viability of these potential solutions will not be known until they are tested and certified.
Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars, depending on only one rocket for some essential military operations and creating monopolies on launch missions, the Senate should allow the purchase of more Russian engines. Even though Moscow threatened to stop selling these engines, Washington should keep its options open. Russia is still willing to provide RD-180s, and has consistently honored its past ULA deliveries without issue. After an alternative engine is created and America’s access to space can be guaranteed, the U.S. can halt the purchases from the Russians.