Future Uncertain for Russian Rocket Engine

Atlas V NROL-33

The U.S. Air Force hasn’t yet decided what to do about its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine, the service’s top civilian said.

“There’s no final decisions on any of these matters concerning the RD-180,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said this week during a breakfast with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

The engine, made by the Russian company NPO Energomash, is employed by the Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture United Launch Alliance LLC as a first-stage engine on the Atlas V rocket as part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which ferries military and spy satellites into space.

Rising tensions between the two countries over Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region this year have raised questions about American dependence on Russian hardware for national-security programs.

What’s more, a California-based company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, wants to compete for a slice of the military market and in April sued the Air Force to open more of the EELV launches to competition.

Michael Gass, the head of United Launch Alliance, this week said deliveries of the RD-180 engine continue, despite recent threats from Russia that it would stop the supply. Two engines are scheduled for delivery in August and three more in October, Gass said, according to an article by Christian Davenport of The Washington Post. The company also pledged to begin developing a its own replacement engine.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, in May tweeted, “Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the US only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon.” He also wrote that Russia “doesn’t plan to continue cooperation” with the U.S. on the International Space Station after 2020 — four years earlier than NASA plans — and that it would deactivate sites of the U.S.-managed GPS system in the country.

The messages were viewed as retaliation against U.S. sanctions. Rogozin, who heads up the country’s defense and space industries, was on a list of Russian officials targeted in March by the White House for economic sanctions in response to Russia’s military action.

Regardless, the Air Force secretary said a recent independent study, known as the Mitchell report after its author, Howard J. Mitchell, a retired Air Force major general, concluded that the U.S. shouldn’t rely so heavily on Russia to launch spacecraft.

The report, a summary of which has been posted on the website, www.spacepolitics.com, pointed out that there were 38 Atlas V missions on the launch manifest, but only 16 RD-180 engines stockpiled in the U.S., and makes a series of recommendations, according to a post on the website by Jeff Foust.

James, the Air Force secretary, said the service is considering expediting delivery of the engines, speeding up the certification process for new entrants to the program such as SpaceX, and, in the long-term, identifying ways to manufacture an engine in the U.S, either by co-producing the existing engine, developing a new engine under a traditional acquisition program or adapting technology already available in the private sector for the program under a public-private partnership, she said.

“These are all options on the table and there’s no final decision yet on which way to go,” she said.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • hibeam

    Hey Air Force.. I have four words for you. North Korean Rocket Engines. You guys can be the experts in painting rockets, leave the hard stuff to other folks.

  • Bernard

    We need to stop using those Russian rocket engines now. We have American companies that can make these things, there is no reason to rely on Russia for this.

    • rtsy

      If that were the case we’d already be doing it.

    • complex

      There is a big reason, how else will we line the pockets of Boeing and LockMart?

  • Lance

    Stop the international crap Brass and make our own engines.

  • Marc Winger

    Even if it means subsidies for US engine manufacturers, if there are any left, there should be no more purchases from Russia. Permanently. One doesn’t patronize an enemy & the fiction that they’re are a friend & ally, has been a delusion since the Soviet collapse.

    • extreme_one

      I think the fact that Russia is an enemy nowadays is fiction ;)

  • extreme_one

    What alternatives are there that don’t need 5-10 years of development atm?
    Only SpaceX?

  • dogfighter

    we should fund spacex fully, I bet the private companies will do what our govy contractors in ula take so long to do in half the time. spacex is pride for my generation, we will win the day again

    • bart hooliman

      yes, because we have so much spare money

    • John Deere

      SpaceX’s profits come from winning Government contracts. Yes, SpaceX’s profits comes from the US taxpayer.

      • Dfens

        ULA’s profits come from cost plus award fee contracts to integrate payloads on rockets. SpaceX’s money comes from commercial contracts to launch payloads.

  • Big-Dean

    And the crack addict wondered about what he should do about his dependency on crack., “what should I do, what should I do…”

    • big rob

      Yea why would we depend on our enemy.to get us into space,this country is acting like they forgot all the history lessons of the past.wake up.

  • Big-Dean

    Joke of the Day
    How many air force generals does it take to make a decision that buying rocket engines from Russia is NOT a good idea-apparently more then they have . LMAO

  • Big-Dean

    Next Joke of the Day
    How many air forces generals plan on working for Lockheed when they retire-that’s a silly question, they’re all working for Lockheed right now.

  • retired462

    Putin is pushing us pretty hard right now. i.e. TU-95’s off of U.S. coast; needless to say he has been doing the same off the coast of the U.K. Is Cold War II here? He could shut us off in a heartbeat! Dump Russia’s contract with us now!

  • Deuterium2H

    With all due respect, OriginalK…that is complete nonsense.

    The USAF awarded the first EELV contracts to Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for their Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles (respectively) back in 1998, BEFORE EITHER of these NEW launch vehicles had ever flown. While some might argue that the Atlas V consisted of a large percentage of proven legacy hardware, carried over from the Atlas 3, it was still an untested, new launch system. The Delta IV had no such “excuse”, and was basically a clean F’n sheet of paper. Brand new engine, brand new common booster core, avionics, the whole shebang.

    So, guess what…the DOD put a military satellite onto the SECOND launch of the brand new Delta IV…less than 4 months after it’s first demonstration launch.

    So please don’t try to tell us that one set of “statistical reliability calculations” apply to LM and Boeing (now merged under ULA), yet a completely different set must apply to SpaceX…and that SpaceX has to have “40 or so successful launches with no failures under their belt”, before they can earn USAF certification. Actually, not even the USAF is claiming that, thankfully.

    By the way, the Delta IV didn’t even make it to 5 successful consecutive launches. The 4th Delta IV launch was a mission failure. http://www.spacedaily.com/news/rocketscience-05b….

  • Roland

    Why not use all available technology and enhance it for space mission and explorations. We already have Space X and other existing assets aside from space , russian rockets and Titan missles.

  • Max

    in the first place, US should never rely heavily on Russian’s made rockets.
    US has always been pioneers in every field. Time to dump the garbage.

  • What Rocket engine did we use to launch these military Satellites before the early 1990’s?

  • Bob in California

    It still amazes me just how many ignorant people will jump on a subject and know nothing about it. Here’s a fact that no one has mentioned: There are 104 rocket engine and associated rocket component manufacturers in the United States. We don’t need Russia or any other country! America has always excelled in the aerospace and astronautics industries. It seems that OriginalK believes there are no other viable resources in our country for building rockets. Hey, OriginalK, so your homework! For those who need proof of all the manufacturers right here in the good ol’ USA here ya go: http://www.manta.com/mb_35_G02F9000_000/guided_mi

    • ghostwhowalks

      Unfortunately you are incorrect on this one. When it comes to the overall rocket technology the Russians were ahead. They just had many more programs and rocket types.
      If you want to use US rockets you cant put the payloads you want into orbit.

    • BIG ROB

      I AGREE

    • blight_

      Russia’s sole lead is in a particular niche of rocket launches. It does not spell the imminent doom of all American rocketry.

      Please take your soma.

  • ribby22

    Why the Hell would we use Russian rockets in the First place? Well folks there is a very simple answer here , (and it’s the truth )because their engines were far more advanced than our rockets. These rockets far out performed our rockets . They were using technology that our best experts in rocket science said was impossible and yet the Russians had perfected it. This is what happens when there exists a Monopoly which is controlled by the Government and Who’s compass is controlled by special interest lobby groups This is why we need companies like spaceX and people like Mr. Musk. Bravo Mr. Musk , I truly believe that he wants to do what’s right for his country not only himself for his company. Elon Musk is the modern equivalent of Roy Grumman a true American Patriot.

  • rick

    I think its a really good i deal for Russia to take their Rockets. It will just push the people here to make newer even better rockets for our selves. The reason we are probably using Russian rockets is because it was cheaper. saving a few bucks, on less congressmen touches it, then it worth three times as much.

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