A United Launch Alliance Atlas V launches from Space LAunch Complex-41 launch pad, on February 11, 2010.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V launches from Space LAunch Complex-41 launch pad, on February 11, 2010. NASA

No More Russian Engines on American Rockets

From Russian rocket engines to Chinese rare earths, it’s time the Defense Department stop promoting foreign dependence as industry policy. By Rep. Duncan Hunter

An invisible battle is raging between those who believe the U.S. military should rely only on secure defense suppliers and those who are willing to turn a blind eye, in the interest of globalization, to the dangers of foreign dependence.

Despite endless examples that include counterfeit semiconductors and Chinese rare earth magnets in the Joint Strike Fighter, there is still a preference within the Defense Department to promote an industrial policy that fails to recognize an increasingly dangerous world.  One area of particular concern—and perhaps where the warning signs are most prevalent—is America’s overdependence on Russian suppliers to support our national security space launch capability.  

Through the United Launch Alliance, or ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Air Force, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, all utilize rockets made with Russian engines (the RD-180) for a multitude of critical national security-related missions. Incredibly, this reliance on Russia to support American launches will remain until at least 2020, by virtue of a long-term, exclusive contract with ULA.

The U.S. military maintains deep and expensive financial ties to Russia through its ongoing purchase of RD-180 engines. These engines are made by NPO Energomash, a Russian state-owned company. Even worse, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is currently under sanction by the U.S., controls the company and recently mocked the United States by suggesting that we send our astronauts to the International Space Station via trampoline, instead of using Russian spacelift.

If there was ever a time to end our financial support of Russia’s rocket industry, it’s now. The U.S. already has real alternatives in place. And given Russia’s threats to stop delivery of the engines, the U.S.-Russia joint space-lift venture must not drag on any longer.

(RelatedHow 3D Printing Could Help Replace Russian Rockets)

The reasoning goes beyond deep embarrassment over lining the pockets of Russian tycoons with American taxpayer dollars. There is a far more serious threat to U.S. national security, while domestic innovation and job creation are undermined in the process. Rogozin stated as much when he said “the sales of engines for…rockets in the United States favor Russia as the profits go directly for technological modernization of [Russian] enterprises.” Even worse, Rogozin taunts likened Russian engines to a “broom for an American witch.”

More recently, Alan Estevez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, testified before the Senate that “the long-term U.S. national security interest would be enhanced by shifting from the RD-180 to next generation U.S. engines.” Agreed—the dangers under the status quo are too serious to ignore.

Of deep concern is a potential decision by Russia to withhold delivery of the RD-180. Under that scenario, critical launch operations planned by the Air Force, NASA and the NRO, which monitor and maintain our defense systems, would be jeopardized, leaving the U.S. ever-more vulnerable to a resurgent Russia (not to mention other adversaries).

While designing and producing a launch-ready rocket takes considerable time and money, there is an immediate solution. California has the largest private rocket company in America and it has been producing liquid rocket engines for over a decade, working side-by-side with the U.S. military on a number of successful missions.

Even so, much of problem right now rests squarely on the shoulders of the Air Force and other U.S. military institutions that continuously uphold the ULA’s monopoly over U.S. military launches. It is understandable to want to utilize the product they know best (the RD-180), but it is unfathomable that we would not use rocket engines made here in America.

Fortunately, there is an immediate legislative remedy in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 that prevents the Department of Defense from purchasing additional Russian engines. Most importantly, this provision immediately enables the Air Force to begin future engine purchases with strict focus on American-made engines.

It is foolish for the U.S. to rely on a Russian regime that is totally dismissive of a peaceful world order.  A fix is needed—and needed fast.

Americans don’t need a new Cold War to know that dependence on Russian space launch capability is bad policy.