Air Force Secretary Casts Doubt on RD-180 Replacement Schedule

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WASHINGTON — Three months after the U.S. Congress ordered the Air Force to wean itself from a Russian-built rocket engine routinely used to launch national security satellites, a top service official told lawmakers that the 2019 deadline set in the legislation is probably not feasible.

In December, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 that contained a measure mandating that the Defense Department replace the Russian RD-180 engine with an American-made alternative by 2019.

The RD-180 is the main engine on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, one of two vehicles the company uses to launch most U.S. government satellites and virtually all national security missions.

Air Force officials have since raised doubts about the 2019 timeline. Almost immediately after the bill’s passage, Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, described the schedule as “aggressive” and “challenging.”

But speaking to the Senate’s Appropriations defense subcommittee Feb. 25, Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force, used the service’s strongest language to date.

Deborah Lee James
“I’m not sure we can make it,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in response to a question from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), about being able to have an American alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 by 2019. Credit: U.S. Senate video capture

“I’m not sure we can make it,” James said in response to a question from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

“All of the technical experts with whom I have consulted have told me this is not a one- or two- or three-year deal,” James said. “You’re looking at six years, maybe seven years to develop an engine and another year or two beyond that to integrate. This truly is rocket science. These are hard technical problems and so to have that 2019 date there is pretty aggressive and I’m not sure we can make it. I turn to my technical experts. That’s what they tell us.”

Industry officials have said a new engine would cost at least $1 billion and take at least five years to develop.

The RD-180 is built by NPO Energomash of Russia and sold to ULA by RD-Amross, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies Corp. That arrangement has come under fire due to the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations that accelerated in 2014 over the crisis in Ukraine.

The Air Force in 2013 awarded ULA an $11 billion sole-source contract for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets that runs through 2019. The RD-180s ordered as part of this contract are exempt from the authorization legislation.

Meanwhile, in spite of the military-use ban, ULA is evaluating a proposal to purchase as many as 30 more RD-180 engines that the company says will be used in part for future commercial missions.

James said the Air Force would be open to “maybe some clarification in the law, some adjustment on that 2019 period.”

The legislation already allows for a waiver process for national security missions “if space launch services cannot be obtained at a fair and reasonable price without the use of the Russian RD-180 engines.”

But Air Force officials want to have several rockets at their disposal come 2019 to be able to procure launch services at competitive rates.

“A gap would be something that we would not wish to have,” James said.

Denver-based ULA’s other main rocket, the Delta 4, will be available, but is significantly more expensive than the Atlas 5.

The Falcon 9 rocket made by Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX also will be available and should be certified this year to launch national security satellites. SpaceX also is developing a Falcon Heavy rocket that is expected to debut this year.