Pentagon Will Need Russian Rocket Engines for Years, Officials Say

Any Uncle Sam replacement to the cheap yet powerful Russian rocket engine used to launch U.S. military satellites is still years away, officials acknowledged.

The Air Force currently contracts with a company called United Launch Alliance LLC, a Colorado-based joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., to launch military and spy satellites. ULA flies two families of rockets, Delta and Atlas. The latter is powered during its first stage by the Russian-made RD-180 kerosene-liquid oxygen engine.

After Russia’s annexation last year of the Crimea territory in the Ukraine and rising tensions between Russia and NATO allies, U.S. lawmakers scrambled to end the Pentagon’s reliance on Russian technology for its national-security programs.

As Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama and chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, bluntly put it during the hearing, “I want a new engine. I don’t want a new rocket.”

Congress in December authorized $220 million to begin developing a replacement to the RD-180 as part of a massive spending bill called the Omnibus Appropriations Act. Additional funding for the development effort is expected.

But a made-in-America first-stage engine for the Atlas V may not be ready until the next decade. Firms vying to build a domestic alternative to the RD-180 made by NPO Energomash acknowledged they’re still years away from having their technology tested and certified.

Blue Origin LLC, the private aerospace company funded by Amazon.com founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos, has spent a significant amount of its own money developing a possible design, called the BE-4, which will be ready to fly in 2019, according to Rob Meyerson, president of the company. (A precursor successfully lifted off earlier this year.)

Aerojet Rocketdyne, the incumbent engine-maker, is some 16 months behind that schedule, an official said. But it plans on having a certified propulsion system, known as the AR-1, around the same time, according to Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of advanced space and launch programs at the company.

Nevertheless, Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, said it would probably take another year or two after that point to complete the certification process. That means any Atlas 5 rocket outfitted with a new main engine may not be ready until 2021 or later.

Despite some boisterous rhetoric from Russian officials, the supply of RD-180 engines to the U.S. has continued uninterrupted. ULA may need to buy at least 29 more of the propulsion systems in order to generate enough revenue to develop a new rocket, called the Vulcan, designed to compete in both the government and commercial launch markets.

“Either engine path that has just been discussed requires significant investment on the part of ULA,” Tory Bruno, head of the venture, testified. “Without the continued revenue generation of the Atlas until that new American engine is available, we will lack the funds to be able to accomplish that activity.

He added, “We need to be able to effectively compete for civil and commercial missions in addition to competing for national security space missions. Without that lower cost rocket and without the investment required to get there, we’re simply not economically viable in that window.”

Michael Griffin, the former head of NASA, said the U.S. shouldn’t fund the development of a new rocket — or rely solely on commercial companies such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, to launch national-security payloads.

“Some have said that the best forward path is to discard decades of government investment in and experience with the Atlas and to develop a whole new system,” he said. “This does nothing to solve today’s problems and even if it did, it’s irrational to suppose that an entirely new launch vehicle can be obtained more quickly or at less cost than a new engine alone.”

He continued, “Others would have us believe that the U.S. government can merely purchase launch services from among multiple competitors as if one were selecting a particular airline for a desired trip based on airfare and schedule. But in reality, the U.S. national security launch architecture is a strategic capability having far more in common with other strategic assets such as fighters, bombers, aircraft carriers and submarines than it does with airlines and cruise ships. The vagaries of the market cannot be allowed to determine whether or not critical payloads make it into space.”

In short, he said, “We have an engine problem, not a rocket problem.”

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.
  • Robbie

    Last I read, the Air Force had stockpiled years of the Russian engines to avoid getting in a supply bind until they can develop a domestic version.

  • andy

    Our Scientist and eng. suk.
    Support USSR jobs.

  • Andy

    I thought the US will SANCTION Russia…hah hah ..LOL ..can’t even design a rocket.

  • KnownUnknowns

    Assuming the Falcon Heavy launches this year and doesn’t run into any major problems it will still probably be another two years before it can be certified for nat-sec launches.

  • Bernard

    “The vagaries of the market cannot be allowed to determine whether or not critical payloads make it into space.”
    Sounds like they want to stay trapped in the box of corrupt defense projects. Once you build a bomber the design and reliability of the bomber determines whether or not critical payloads can make it to targets. It doesn’t matter who builds the rocket, you will be limited to what is available. Now if you are worried about the commercial companies failing to keep enough rockets ready, you can include that requirement in the contract. You can even have inspectors verify that enough rockets remain ready for launch. This isn’t a real issue, it is resistance to change.

  • Seb

    How hard can it be to simply reverse engineer one of the RD-180s?

  • oblatt23

    Rocket engines are just one of a number of industries where America is one or two generations behind. Several industries have simply disappeared and others like defense have retreated into scams and fraud to make a buck.

    Its a safe bet that America will never catch up to Russian engine design. It just doesn’t have what it takes intellectually or financially.

    • jffourquet

      Sad, but true

    • guest

      What a CROC of BS!!! I think I remember something called the SATURN V….and the MX MISSILE, the MINUTEMAN…..these all have engines that would ….should work to launch this rocket. But…NNNNooooooo fat cats would rather delay and spend MORE $$$$$ to develop a whole new rocket, instead of just the engine. I am sure some of those I mentioned are of a older design, but, hey, they WORKED THEN…and should now. Just another case of our downfall……GREED!

    • Derek

      I would love to comment on how wrong you are, but sorry, I don’t feed trolls.

  • BlackOwl18E

    This is what happens when you sell all your jobs and innovation to foreign countries.

    Russia really can cut us off from the ISS like they had threatened to.

  • thexfile

    This problem keeps falling back to outsourcing as a root cause.

  • guest

    We can send a man to the moon, 10 multiple independant warrheads on 1 missile, a massive megaton weight warhead and many other heavy objects into space, but now, cannot develp a engine to lift satellites? What a bunch of BS…..6-10 years……damn…this should take NO MORE than 4-5, and that SHOULD have started 2 years ago, meaning by 2018-2019 we should have a CERTIFIED MODEL to work with….but no, good ole fat cats want to spend ooodles to go off track, and now develop a whold new rocket, when all we need is a engine. Our downfall……..GREED!!! Just MHO :-)

    • oblatt23

      No its too late the US will never catch up now.

      • Dweight

        No money to play catch up. USA is now colossally bankrupt.

        The dollar as we know it might not even exist after 2016.

    • Dean

      Part of the problem has been insisting on liquid propellant rockets, with long development lead times. “Solid rockets” are dirty words to the “new space” crowd but they get the job of replacing a problematic first stage done much more quickly, without out-sourcing to a foreign country. Just saying. Then you can spend as long as is necessary coming up with the final solution-whatever it is.

      • Dfens

        Funny, that’s the same position Morton Thiokol (now ATK) takes. It didn’t help Challenger much.

  • whelp

    All I hear is excuses for a corrupt defense industry. If the need was truly as dire as they paint it, it would already be fixed, this is simply Boeing and Lockheed fleecing America for all they can, as usual.

  • john Simon

    It’s disgusting that we allowed ourselves to get to this point in the first place! The individuals who allowed the use of a foreign countries rocket engine for use in a military project should be tried for treason, esp. given we don’t have a U.S. built engine for this purpose at all in our inventory

    • FASnipeHT2

      Well, lets see, who makes the budgets and collects the taxes? Congress. Cut, cut, cut has disadvantages.

  • Chris S

    What a bunch of bullshit - we should cut ULA off until they can present a competitively priced and fully US built launch service. For some reason, they are “entitled” to scam the American tax payers out of their money, and support Russia jobs over American jobs - FOR DEFENSE CONTRACTS!!!

    Can’t compete? Then your company should be shuttered … i.e. capitalism!

  • Dfens

    This is what happens when you outsource the capability to design rockets to for profit defense corporations and provide them a profit incentive to drag out design and jack up the costs. When NASA and the Air Force designed their own rockets we went from not having a rocket program to putting men on the Moon in 15 years. Hell, now it takes us that long to design a single engine. Of course, engineers have known this day was coming for decades. Suddenly the rest of the world is seeing it and who do they blame? The engineers, the only people that could save their sorry asses. Here’s the deal, engineers don’t owe you anything. You f us over, you’re the ones who are f’ed.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    An ephemeral problem. We’ll have new rockets soon enough from SpaceX and Blue Origins. The greater delay will be the bureaucratic procedures for certification, which is what I think Mr. Griffin is defending. I believe current practice requires something like 20 launches of identically configured rockets for certification. ULA has that, and like any happy monopolist, they have zero interest in cooperating with the horrors of a competitive marketplace - or worse yet, competitors who keep improving their product.

    Building a rocket that can land vertically has, so far, eluded Space X. Building a new rocket engine is well within their grasp. I am not sure that we have a problem beyond institutional sclerosis, and a desire to avoid upsetting some lucrative apple carts.
    Want to bet that ULA’s budget for lobbying increases every time any competitor manages a successful launch?

  • Martin Greve

    the US defence industry is (becomming) a scam; remember the JSF?

  • JamcaicanMeAfraid

    Notice no one commented on the Delta which uses an US made rocket and has had an excellent launch history.

  • Vietnam Vet

    Guess we didn’t get all the smart German Scientists after WW-2.

    • blight_asdf

      We got enough of them, which is why we won the space race.

      But those German scientists had to die sometime. And we didn’t replace them.

      • Dfens

        They didn’t even have to die. Werner Von Braun was put out of a job by Rockwell and their “wonderful” space shuttle that didn’t meet a single design objective and had us locked in low earth orbit for 3 decades. Von Braun was put out to pasture before he even had a chance to retire, let alone die. And to make sure he didn’t get any traction with his criticisms of the shuttle, NASA and Rockwell went on a smear campaign to label him as a Nazi. Now NASA can’t even get an astronaut’s sorry ass out of his chair without putting an ex-Soviet Union designed rocket under it.

      • curious

        How did you win the space race?

        • Dfens

          We had an actual person who was responsible for designing the vehicle for one thing. Plus we didn’t pay a bunch of “for profit” corporations a profit incentive to drag the program out as long as possible an f up as many times as possible. NASA designed the rocket and contracted out the construction. No one got paid until there was working hardware on the loading dock. That part of rocket science isn’t rocket science. It’s the kind of practical good sense this country used to be known for.

        • blight_

          I’m Chuck Norris, duh.

  • changey

    We have Delta IV, no Russian components, its just as reliable as the Atlas V. ULA wants to mothball the medium version. Stop that. US Airforce has made procurement decisions based upon factors besides cost so they can award contracts to Delta despite it costing more than Falcon. Anyway after the explosion of Falcon its cost to manufacture might rise. In any case give then proven flight record of Delta the USG must insure it stays on the launch pad far into the future.

  • Tad

    Ridiculous. The Saturn-V F1 was developed in the late 1950’s and perfected in the early 60’s. Too bad Rocketdyne scrapped the Saturn-V, its engines, its tooling, and even its blueprints in order to get more profits out of the then in-development Space Shuttle. At least this is what I had read in an article in (I think) Astronomy Magazine back in the early 1980’s about testimony before Congress as to why the Space Shuttle was over-budget, over-schedule and unable to meet virtually any of its original key performance parameters.

  • Patriot on a String

    All the private companies like Space-X have actually been combing through junk piles, and scrap yards recovering components from early NASA engines. They have an unannounced reward for anyone with plans, blueprints, etc.. That anyone ”took home as soveigners” from their employments with NASA and the military… They have successfully reassembled and are studying some of these earlier engines… The crux is the governments claims that only the private companies that built them at tax payers expense had any data.. No One Archived anything…