Time to turn to American technology for space launch

For the first time since the Cold War, the United States has deployed armored reinforcements to Europe. To counter Russia’s aggression, several hundred troops and 20 tanks are now in the Baltic. Yet the U.S. military is still injecting millions into the Russian military industrial complex. In late August, the United Launch Alliance -- the chief supplier of Air Force rockets -- received two new RD-180 engines from Russia at a cost of $50 million to U.S. taxpayers.

For years, our military’s use of the RD-180 has enriched a corrupt Russian government at the expense of U.S. taxpayers and helped finance Russia’s technological advances. Reliance on these Russian engines is a threat to our national security. Plus, it’s unnecessary. There is no shortage of U.S. firms eager to replace the RD-180. It’s time to let them.

The RD-180 is a critical component of the Atlas V rocket, one of two main vehicles currently used for national-security launches. The United Launch Alliance supplies these rockets to the Air Force, NASA, and the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that oversees many of America’s spy satellites.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine has made our use of RD-180s an embarrassing liability. Senior Russian officials have routinely mocked America for it, and sought to mitigate U.S. sanctions by threatening to discontinue supplying the rocket engine. This, as the Russians know, would do immense harm to America’s military and intelligence capabilities.

Moreover, the RD-180 is helping to finance an increasingly bellicose Russian government. The engine is produced by NPO Energomash, a company that’s almost entirely state owned and financed by Russian banks sanctioned by the United States. Ultimate control of the company rests with Dmitry Rogozin, a Deputy Prime Minister in Russia who oversees the country’s aerospace industry. He is one of the few individuals on the U.S. sanctions list.

According to a recent Pentagon report, Russian-made engines are scheduled to be used in 56 percent of America’s national security launches between now and 2020. The dependence of U.S. military and intelligence capabilities on Russian equipment is not prudent.

After Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a House appropriations subcommittee that a review of our reliance on Russian rocket engines was needed. In August, Air Force Space Command head Gen. John Hyten said we “should not be dependent on Russia for our access to space.” The Air Force has started soliciting suggestions from the aerospace industry for potential replacements. And the latest defense appropriations bill includes $220 million in funding for a U.S.-made rocket engine.

These developments are encouraging. However, for America to break its dependence on Russian rocket engines, bolder action is needed.

A good place to start is by breaking the ULA’s monopoly for military launches and opening up the market to new competitors. This would encourage important technological breakthroughs, while increasing the probability of saving money.

Last month, 32 Members of Congress from California noted that their state is home to the largest private producers of liquid rocket engines, including one launch services provider that the Air Force has excluded from its recent $11 billion rocket buy.

Given the national security implications and taxpayer benefits, it’s hard to imagine why the Air Force would continue to keep American engine manufacturers and rocket providers off the launch pad.

Mr. Deptula is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general and former chief of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the Air Force.



Published: Nov. 13, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 31