Sen. John McCain
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a Dec. 8 letter he would consider an "unrestricted prohibition" on a Russian rocket engine. Credit: U.S. Army Chief of Staff

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Air Force has “wasted a year doing very little” to end the Defense Department’s reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch national security satellites.

“Russia annexed Crimea over a year ago, yet the Air Force does not even have an acquisition strategy yet for a new rocket engine,” McCain said March 18 in his opening statement for an Army and Air Force hearing. “Instead of giving this effort the level of attention needed, the Air Force has wasted a year doing very little to end our reliance on Russian rocket engines. If the Air Force is unwilling to do what’s necessary to meet the 2019 deadline, they are going to have to figure out how to meet our space launch needs without the RD-180.”

The RD-180 is the main engine on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, which along with that company’s Delta 4 rocket launches virtually all U.S. national security satellites. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year, Congress mandated that the Air Force stop using the RD-180 and begin work on a U.S.-built replacement.

Congress reprogrammed $40 million for the new engine in fiscal year 2014 and allocated $220 million in 2015, directing that it be ready by 2019. Air Force officials said March 17 they could issue a draft solicitation for new engine concepts as early as April.

But McCain and other lawmakers have grown increasingly critical of the service’s pace on the project.

Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) took up the matter in a March 10 letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. “Given the urgency of the situation and clear guidance from Congress, I am concerned at the lack of action exhibited by DOD and the Air Force,” they said.

Air Force and ULA officials have argued that the schedule mandated by Congress for fielding a new American-made engine is unrealistic and are seeking a relaxation of the RD-180 ban so the company can buy more of the Russian-made engines.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters March 16 he wanted the Air Force to explain why an American-made rocket engine can not be ready by 2019 before he would consider easing or lifting a ban on Russian-made engines.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be some congressional support for easing the ban.

BE-4 rocket engine
BE-4 rocket engine. Credit: Blue Origin

ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno says the RD-180 ban should be delayed until an American alternative is ready. Denver-based ULA is working with Blue Origin on the BE-4, a liquid natural gas-fueled engine that Bruno has said will not be ready to fly Air Force missions before 2021.

Aerojet Rocketdne of Sacramento, California, also is working on an RD-180 alternative dubbed the AR-1 and says it can meet the 2019 deadline, but Pentagon officials remain skeptical.

McCain has been a vocal critic of the Air Force’s satellite-launching program in recent years due to its high cost. In February, he accused the Air Force of “actively keeping” rocket maker SpaceX out of the national security launch market. SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is challenging ULA’s monopoly with its Falcon 9 rocket, which expected to win Air Force certification to launch national security missions by midyear.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.