Engine Wars

May 28, 2014—The House version of the Fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill includes $220 million to develop an alternative to the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which powers United Launch Alliance Atlas rockets.

In addition, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s mark of the Fiscal 2015 authorization bill prohibits “the use of Russian rocket engines on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle at the end of the current block buy contract.” The SASC mark also calls on the Defense Department to “pursue new domestic development in a world-class liquid rocket engine.”

If enacted, the language becomes even more critical as tensions between the US and Russia over the RD-180 heat up.

In early May, a federal judge with the US Court of Federal Claims lifted an injunction that barred United Launch Alliance from purchasing RD-180 engines, noting US officials had sufficiently convinced her the purchases did not violate US sanctions against Russian officials that were enacted in the wake of Russian military aggression in Ukraine, reported NBC News.

Following the announcement, Russian officials shot back, saying the engines will not be sold to the US for use on defense projects.

“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,” Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted on May 13 following a press briefing on international space cooperation.

In a statement released the same day, ULA officials denied knowledge of any restrictions, but assured stakeholders that any disruption would not be fatal to the program.

“ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions. However, if recent news reports are accurate, … ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of [our] customers’ needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all US-produced rocket engines.”

During a space conference in Colorado last week, Air Force Space Command boss Gen. William Shelton said there “have been no official pronouncements out of the Russian government on the RD-180” other than the one tweet from “one government official that has caused everybody concern,” reported Space Politics.

“I think [this is] a time to pause and find out if that’s the official position,” added Shelton. “Right now, I don’t think we have an indication that it really is where the government comes down on this in the long term, and there are other indications that ‘business as usual’ is the state of play with Russian industry.”

Shelton did say, however, that he supports the development of an American alternative to the Russian-made engine.

“There’s a debate to be had, and I think it will occur over the next four-to-five months,” Shelton said, according to the Space Politics report. “All of the studies we did in the past indicated that the cost to co-produce [an alternative engine], versus the cost of developing a new engine were about in the same ballpark.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell and former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin led a commission, formed earlier this year as tensions between Ukraine and Russia began to escalate, to study potential issues with the RD-180 supply line, reported Aviation Week, citing industry officials.

Although the commission’s findings were not made public, Aviation Week published a summary of the commission’s report, which says that “regardless of RD-180 viability, [the] US needs to develop a domestic engine.”

According to the summary, the “national baseline manifest is not supportable beyond March 2016” without additional RD-180 engines. Specifically, there are 38 Atlas missions that are manifested and only 16 RD-180 engines in the stockpile.

During the May 13 briefing, Rogozin said Russia “will proceed from the fact that we can no longer deliver these engines to the United States, and that we can no longer maintain and repair previously shipped engines, unless we receive guarantees that our engines are used only for launching civilian payloads.”

In addition to the ban on engine sales, Rogozin went on to outline other actions Russia would take in response to the US-imposed sanctions levied on the country because of tensions with Ukraine.

“We’ve repeatedly warned our colleagues at the political and professional levels that sanctions are always a boomerang. They always come back around and are simply inappropriate in such sensitive spheres as cooperation in space exploration, production of spacecraft engines, and navigation, not to mention manned space flights,” said Rogozin. “Sanctions are like releasing a bull in a china shop.”