A Vostok rocket on display in Moscow.

A Vostok rocket on display in Moscow. Flickr image via Chris Guy

Don’t Prolong America’s Dependence on Russian Rockets

United Launch Alliance is trying to escape the requirement to phase out the RD-180 engine, SpaceX advisors say.

For more than a decade, America has purchased rocket engines at a cost of tens of millions of dollars each—for a total cost in the billions—from the Russian government to send our critical military and intelligence-gathering satellites to space. The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which the President signed into law on Nov. 25, appropriately and effectively addresses this unacceptable reliance on Russia, through a set of reasonable deadlines and standards. However, the new law is already under attack by those who wish to continue this shameful, and dangerous, “partnership” with Vladimir Putin.

The United Launch Alliance—a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that has enjoyed monopoly status in the national security launch market—pays for Russian rocket engines with U.S. taxpayer dollars. Every engine purchased by the U.S. directly finances the very Russian military industrial base that has allowed Mr. Putin to become so “provocative.” Indeed, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin–the “czar” of Russia’s space program—has called these U.S. outlays “free money” used to advance Russian missile technology. Other funds pass through mysterious shell corporations and ultimately line the pockets of Putin’s network of cronies.

The 2015 and 2016 NDAAs have established a clear timeline for phasing out the RD-180 engine. ULA is permitted to use Russian rocket engines for its existing missions, including a non-competed $11.5 billion contract for 28 launches through 2021. Current law also does not restrict the use of this engine for commercial customers or even missions for NASA. Beyond this, however, ULA is limited to using a total of nine extra Russian rocket engines for competitively awarded DOD missions. Not coincidentally, there are nine such missions set to fly through 2020. Only then will the use of Russian engines be phased out.

These are plain facts, and the math is not rocket science: nine competitions, nine engines. Yet on Nov. 16, the day proposals were due, ULA announced it was withdrawing from this current round of project bidding, saying it wants more Russian engines and was unhappy with the competitive terms of the procurement. These claims are disingenuous. Not only does the company in fact have sufficient RD-180 engines, it could also offer its other rocket — the heavily subsidized, American-made Delta IV vehicle — in a competition. And as a precaution, the defense bill provides for a “national security waiver,” which would permit more Russian engine purchases if there are no reasonably priced American options.

The premise set forth in the Defense bill is prudent, and clear: if there is a reasonably priced U.S. alternative, we should not be buying more Russian rocket engines. This is the balanced, well-reasoned, and heavily debated approach taken by defense leaders in Congress. And, for the first time in a decade, other American companies are providing competitively priced launch services in open competitions.

Yet, almost inconceivably, when faced with real competition for the first time, ULA is opting to not just play a deceptive shell game with the Defense Department and the Congress as it relates its addiction to Russian engines, but to take all its launch options off the table and walk away.

With what should be sufficient engines permitted under law to compete for missions set to fly through the rest of the decade and its own domestic alternative capable of doing the same launches, ULA has scrambled to manufacture a false dilemma to justify the continued use of Russian engines indefinitely and without restriction. It claims to have “committed” its available Russian engines to non-Defense missions. And it has threatened, petulantly, to “no-bid” upcoming national security space launch competitions. Finally, it has decided, unilaterally and without explanation, to make its American-made Delta IV medium-lift vehicle “unavailable” in the future.

The math is simple, and the facts are simple. ULA has the engines to compete for all available near-team competitions for space launch, and likely beyond. The Air Force said so itself: in denying a recent ULA request for a special waiver, the government acknowledged that ULA had “several avenues” to compete using its Russian-powered rocket.

There are calls now to undo the prohibition on Russian rocket engines, making claims of “competition” and “assured access.” But there has never been assured access to space with a monopoly provider relying on Russian rocket engines. Indeed, as soon as competition arrives, the monopoly incumbent walked out.

Policymakers and Pentagon officials should call ULA’s attempt to create a false choice for what it is. The current law is good national security policy, good competition policy, and good industrial base policy. Those who seek to undo the law are doing the United States no favors.