Lawmakers Question Air Force’s Use of Russian Rocket Engines

Atlas V AV-026 OTV-2; LO2 tanking prior to launch
As tensions continue to escalate in Ukraine, U.S. lawmakers want to know how the Air Force plans to replace Russian-made rocket engines used to launch military satellites.

The Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program relies on the Russian RD-180 as the main engine on its Atlas V boosters.

Critics argue this is a risky practice since the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is deteriorating over the deployment of Russian troops and equipment into Crimea amid political and social unrest in southern Ukraine.

“It’s no secret that we have had some differences with Russia in the last few months,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee. “And yet in at least one important area we are dependent on Russia in terms of our American national defense.”

United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., is the sole provider of medium and heavy lift rockets for the EELV program. ULA officials have assured lawmakers that it has a two-year supply of RD180 engines.

But Durbin said he is concerned it could cost up to $1 billion over five years if ULA produces the engines domestically.

“If we decided to produce this engine domestically, clearly we have a big bill to pay,” said Durbin, who asked Air Force leaders to explain their plans to resolve the issue during an April 2 hearing.

The Air Force is currently reviewing alternatives to the Russian engines in case the former communist country decides to stop supplying ULA with engines, said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

“We have initiated a review, which is due at the end of May, to get to the bottom of some of these questions and more importantly to provide some answers that if we did have it shut off, what would it mean?” she said. “I have learned spare parts are very important so that is a question that the review is also going to look at is do we have the spare parts for the two years … We are studying it quickly, and we hope to have some more answers shortly.”

Durbin questioned why the proposed budget seems to put “most of our faith in the ULA project to continue despite the question mark about Russian sources.”

The EELV program is made up of “heavy launches and lighter launches,” James said.

“We want competition for all of the launches and by 2017, under the process that has been laid out, we expect that we will have new entrants to compete for all of it,” she said. “What you are referring to is the fact that in terms of the launches – some of those launches have gotten deferred beyond the five year plan. Why? The answer is those launches involve GPS satellites and it turns out that the existing GPS satellites are lasting longer than we originally anticipated therefore we don’t need to launch them as quickly.”

The Air Force anticipates eight of these light launches will occur over the five year period, and seven of the eight will be competitive assuming the new entrants qualify, James said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said ULA officials visited her in May of 2012 and promised that the alliance between Lockheed and Boeing would lead to lower program costs.

“They told me that two big American defense companies coming together instead of competing could lower costs through the alliance,” she said. “Well it turned out that year they couldn’t; the cost went up 60 percent.”

EELV is projected to cost $70 billion through 2030, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Feinstein said she was also concerned that the Air Force only planned to hold a competition for eight cores — main part of the rocket that includes the engine – but awarded a sole-source contract to ULA for 35 cores.

The Air Force awarded the large contract to ULA to save money, James said. The contract locked in cost savings of $1.2 million compared to the analysis of projected costs, she said.

“With that said even the threat of competition caused the costs to come down,” James said. “The quicker we can get more companies qualified to compete, the better as far as I am concerned.”

About the Author

Matt Cox
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  • Maybe they should also address why the US is dependent on the Russians to put people on or off the International Space Station.

    • RAS743

      You mean like social-program spending — “stimulus”? Obamacare? — crowding out “providing for the common defense”? Yeah, good luck with that. The droolers that put people like Dick Durbin and Barack Obama in office don’t know or don’t care what you want “addressed”. They’ve got their bennies; everything and everyone else can go to hell.

    • Maxtrue

      Well, eventually Elon is going to have to build power stations to 1. get lower energy costs for building his own version of Russia’s methane engines (which he has built for the Dragon), 2. supply power for his direct sales of his electric car 3. win over the people that have been bamboozled by the administration and Congress both in the pocket of the Western elite who want to control the playing field of their profits. If I were Musk I would hire the best personal security he can buy. Too bad there aren’t more patriotic industrialists with any kind of balls or vision. I wouldn’t count on the political system here supplying any themselves.

  • Philippe Geril

    buy European launchers

    • mrlee

      The French seem to have a supply of launch vehicles.

    • Karen Jarman

      Buy American! Fly American!

  • LPF

    Why not develop their own engines? ??

  • voodkokk

    “They told me that two big American defense companies coming together instead of competing could lower costs through the alliance,” she said. “Well it turned out that year they couldn’t; the cost went up 60 percent.”

    Wow and these are our elected officials. The only ones driving the bus are defense contractors.

  • Bernard

    Elon Musk from SpaceX says “hi.”


  • blight_

    “The quicker we can get more companies qualified to compete, the better as far as I am concerned.”

    SpaceX is coming. Eat your heart out ULA.

    • mrlee

      And don’t forget the space elevator.

  • Mark

    Elon Musk called it before congress more than once.

  • Ben

    Did anyone watch that congressional hearing that pitted Elon against ULA’s Michael Gass? It’s basically an hour of Gass trying to confuse the committee with jargon and skirt around the issues while Elon throws it in his face.

    The highlight, imo, is at 56:30 when the issue of “Mission Success” is brought up :)

  • jack

    Just another problem created by the amateur Obama and his Socialist Stooges.

    • mule

      The first Atlas V’s launch was in 2002. Yeah, totally Obama’s fault…

  • BobSacamano

    A few, 15 years or so ago, I was invited to Aerojet Corp. in Rancho Cordova, CA during an open house and an employee, a friend, gave me the informal tour. I saw the sealed chamber used to weld titanium, albeit, that’s been vastly improved on, also what my tour guide claimed was an F-22 ****pit assembly sitting nearby, neat stuff.

    Various things of interest were pointed out, remember this was very informal, an after-hour’s tour and one thing I’ll never forget was the Russian rocket motor sittin’ there, the explanation of the the [diffuser] that the fuel and oxidizer is mixed through, with all the random oddly shaped holes and those holes are tried-n-true, fully tested and random is an understatement.

    That motor always caused me confusion, confused as to why a Russian rocket motor was there, the go-to? Why don’t we have the best rocket motors in the world, or just copy the best features of what-ever is considered the best?! America should have the best, shouldn’t it?

  • hibeam

    Maybe the Muslim Mathematicians could design a rocket motor for us? It sure is a bummer that our bestest new friends ever did not pan out. Romney tried to warn Obama but Obama was too busy being a snarky know it all.

  • SJE

    I’d rather that we keep a commercial relationship with Russia for something like this that is not essential, and keeps the door open for a productive relationship in the future. Eventually, the Russians will tire of Putin, and we need to have connections.

  • Robert

    U.S. Air Force….Just do it. To hell with the doubting few.

  • Mark

    There are great American companies now, Space x for one, that have shown they have the capability to do the same job cheaper.. Why we would outsource overseas is a mystery to me.. Let’s put goverment dollars behind American companies to promote business and tech development.. I have no doubt that if we decided to tomorrow to suspend all rocket business with Russia that American companies would step up to the plate…

  • Andy

    We also buy 2 billions dollars worth of Russian helicopters…

  • Chris

    Guess no one in Washington ever thought of this eventuality….. Too bad a nuke doesn’t take out DC. We would all be better off.

  • Michael_AF_Ret

    Costs are higher here in the US because of artificially high energy costs. It takes massive amounts of electricity to produce exotic materials. If you start with the food chain, food costs more because of fuel costs – planting, cultivating, fertilizing, harvesting, transportation, processing raw product, shipping raw product, and manufacturing the final product. Then it has to be warehoused, distributed via trucks and trains, and taken to the consumer. Result “higher” food costs. A family needs a minimum income to buy food, clothing, housing, and transportation. US firms have to offer a wage that is high enough to attract the best and insure they have the money for necessities. The economy needs wages high enough for discretionary spending. So, to get a nut and bolt for a rocket engine the necessary energy is far too high to make US manufacturers competitive. Until we stop holding back the energy sector, we are spinning our wheels in losing our economy.

  • bart

    What engines power our strategic nuke forces… wouldn’t that be ironic!

    • Deuterium2H

      No worries, bart.

      All our strategic nukes use solid fuel main motors (e.g. first, second and third stages) –all made in the USA.

      The Minuteman III stage one is manufactured by ATK, with upgraded second and third stage motors being furnished under the Propulsion Replacement Program. The fourth stage Propulsion System Rocket Engine (PSRE — post-boost, warhead bus) uses hypergolic bi-propellant liquid fuel for attitude and maneuvering corrections, and is manufactured by Aerojet.

      The Trident D-5 SLBM’s first and second stages are manufactured by Thiokol (ATK), and the third stage is by UTC. The Post Boost Controls System (PBCS) is manufactured by Aerojet.

  • JJ Murray

    You MORONS in Congress are the ones who outsourced our space program and now you FINALLY realize that it wasn’t a good idea? Well sorry folks, it’s going to be YEARS before the US can take that back and cots billions, more likely trillions, of dollars and YOU won’t spend that money!

    • shawn1999

      Ah, finally someone hits the real crux of the matter. Amazing how they have no issues moaning and groaning about engines, but its perfectly OK to send our astronauts to Russia to depart/arrive to/from ISS and any other orbital requirements

  • wtpworrier

    “Lawmakers Question Air Force’s Use of Russian Rocket Engines”__________________________________From what I hear, it was the “lawmakers” that approved it, I doubt the Air Force did it on there own. But lets be fair, first you “lawmakers” cut the budget, then you authorized to use of Russian rockets, then you question the reason for using them…tell bohner, now thats a joke.

  • Atomic Walrus

    The Russians continued to focus military rocket development on liquid fuels for decades after the US military switched to solid propellants. It’s not surprising that recent engines are more advanced in some respects. Same thing with titanium metallurgy – the Russians have large supplies of titanium, and that led them to develop the technology further than the US where the metal was relatively exotic. The Soviets built entire submarines out of titanium, for example. On the other hand, I don’t think anybody would point to Russian technology as exemplars for diesel engines or even aircraft gas turbines.

  • WarPony

    This is TREASONOUS, right?

  • oblatt22

    NASA has been told to stop cooperating with the Russians except please still ask them to still bring our men back from the space station.

    Putin must be laughing his ass off.

  • DBM

    So spare parts are important. That means the engines are junk and have to be repaired before use. Its a miracle non of them have exploded at launch.

  • klops

    Why is everyone ignoring SpaceX? Elon Musk is making AMERICAN engines in AMERICA for AMERICANS. He’s built the engines! He can build more! And he does it cheaper! WHY isn’t SpaceX our lead contractor for them? I don’t understand.

  • Talgat

    In last decade, America has become a paper tiger by its own will.
    US had more than enough to have full security in defence.
    But why pay your own engineers???
    Pay Russians and pocket huge profit.

  • ncb1397

    Outsourcing was such the rage back in the 90s. The generals and politicians just wanted to fit in with their corporate overlords.

  • Ed Silverman

    We were the leader in Rocket technology and a huge manufacturing workforce creating millions of good jobs for our people. Now our administration has killed it and given it all away, to China and Russia. Its no wonder that we have such a high unemployement rate., Its time for our politicians to put America first !

  • Janice Bredfeldt

    You are kidding, right??!!! Russian helicopters, Russian space transport, Russian rocket propulsion…what else?? Good grief, do we even have an American identity any more?! Me thinks the old adage feed your enemy and he will become your friend has been proven to be false! Again.

  • Douglas Boyd

    In my opinion, the USA should supply its own engines. But, using Russian rocket engines gives our own people direct access to Russian technology. What do you think about that?? For every detriment there is usually a benefit, however, I must say that to me, MADE IN USA is much better because there is less unemployment when purchasing from USA factories. Why should US Taxpayers financially boost foreign governments and corporations while our own people depend on government (Taxpayer Funded) welfare handouts. What ever happened to the “Buy American Products” policy of the Taxpayer Funded Federal Government? Sounds to me like the feds hired wolves to guard the treasury hen house. That is my opinion and I will stick to it. db.

  • Carl

    I do not believe it at all, no way would anyone with a reasonable mind should believe it. Russia has the only rockets that we need. No don’t believe it

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