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Lawmakers Question Air Force’s Use of Russian Rocket Engines

by Matt Cox on April 2, 2014

Atlas V AV-026 OTV-2; LO2 tanking prior to launch
As tensions continue to escalate in Ukraine, U.S. lawmakers want to know how the Air Force plans to replace Russian-made rocket engines used to launch military satellites.

The Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program relies on the Russian RD-180 as the main engine on its Atlas V boosters.

Critics argue this is a risky practice since the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is deteriorating over the deployment of Russian troops and equipment into Crimea amid political and social unrest in southern Ukraine.

“It’s no secret that we have had some differences with Russia in the last few months,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee. “And yet in at least one important area we are dependent on Russia in terms of our American national defense.”

United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., is the sole provider of medium and heavy lift rockets for the EELV program. ULA officials have assured lawmakers that it has a two-year supply of RD180 engines.

But Durbin said he is concerned it could cost up to $1 billion over five years if ULA produces the engines domestically.

“If we decided to produce this engine domestically, clearly we have a big bill to pay,” said Durbin, who asked Air Force leaders to explain their plans to resolve the issue during an April 2 hearing.

The Air Force is currently reviewing alternatives to the Russian engines in case the former communist country decides to stop supplying ULA with engines, said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

“We have initiated a review, which is due at the end of May, to get to the bottom of some of these questions and more importantly to provide some answers that if we did have it shut off, what would it mean?” she said. “I have learned spare parts are very important so that is a question that the review is also going to look at is do we have the spare parts for the two years … We are studying it quickly, and we hope to have some more answers shortly.”

Durbin questioned why the proposed budget seems to put “most of our faith in the ULA project to continue despite the question mark about Russian sources.”

The EELV program is made up of “heavy launches and lighter launches,” James said.

“We want competition for all of the launches and by 2017, under the process that has been laid out, we expect that we will have new entrants to compete for all of it,” she said. “What you are referring to is the fact that in terms of the launches – some of those launches have gotten deferred beyond the five year plan. Why? The answer is those launches involve GPS satellites and it turns out that the existing GPS satellites are lasting longer than we originally anticipated therefore we don’t need to launch them as quickly.”

The Air Force anticipates eight of these light launches will occur over the five year period, and seven of the eight will be competitive assuming the new entrants qualify, James said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said ULA officials visited her in May of 2012 and promised that the alliance between Lockheed and Boeing would lead to lower program costs.

“They told me that two big American defense companies coming together instead of competing could lower costs through the alliance,” she said. “Well it turned out that year they couldn’t; the cost went up 60 percent.”

EELV is projected to cost $70 billion through 2030, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Feinstein said she was also concerned that the Air Force only planned to hold a competition for eight cores — main part of the rocket that includes the engine – but awarded a sole-source contract to ULA for 35 cores.

The Air Force awarded the large contract to ULA to save money, James said. The contract locked in cost savings of $1.2 million compared to the analysis of projected costs, she said.

“With that said even the threat of competition caused the costs to come down,” James said. “The quicker we can get more companies qualified to compete, the better as far as I am concerned.”

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