Air Force RD-180 Alternatives Study Finds No Easy Answers

Air Force RD-180 Alternatives Study Finds No Easy Answers

A quick turnaround Air Force review panel assessing the impact on U.S. space launches if Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines no longer are available has found there are no easy remedies.

According to briefing charts obtained by, between now and FY2017 the impacts of losing use of RD-180 engines are “significant” and “options to mitigate them are limited.”  The panel was chaired by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Mitch Mitchell.  Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin was deputy chair and Gen. (Ret.) Tom Moorman was a senior advisor to the group.

One of the more interesting slides in the package is the “how did we get here” slide 8.  U.S. use of Russian rocket engines for a workhorse U,S. launch system was originally predicated on establishment of a U.S.-based co-production capability so that the engines could be produced here rather than relying on delivery from Russia. 

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) uses RD-180 engines to power the Atlas V rocket, one of the two U.S. “Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles” or EELVs.  Delta IV is the other.  The two EELVs are used for most launches of national security satellites, as well as NASA and NOAA spacecraft.

As demonstrated in slide 8, DOD delayed the co-production requirement for the RD-180 engines for the Atlas rocket — originally built by General Dynamics, which was later bought by Lockheed Martin — throughout the late 1990s and 2000s.   The requirement never went into effect, so RD-180s continue to be manufactured in Russia and imported to the United States.  That is why Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s threat to prohibit using RD-180 engines to launch U.S. national security satellites is creating such concern.

ULA says it has a 2-year supply of the RD-180 engines already in the United States, but the Mitchell study points out that 56 percent of the EELV launches between now and 2020 are planned for the Atlas V.  While ULA has said satellites could be shifted to the Delta IV instead, the Mitchell study concludes that Delta IV production cannot be accelerated sufficiently to avoid launch delays.  It also concludes that “New Entrants” like SpaceX will not be ready in time to avoid delays.

In a worst case scenario where the last launch of an Atlas V with an RD-180 engine was today’s launch of a National Reconnaissance Office satellite (NROL-33), the study concludes that 31 launches could be delayed with a cost impact of $5 billion.  If all the RD-180 engines currently in the United States can be used, there would be 9 launch delays costing $2.5 billion.

The Mitchell study does not recommend reinstituting the co-production requirement, saying it is “doable but does not improve the current situation.”  Instead, it calls for U.S. production of a domestic liquid rocket engine and other mitigation actions.  The study calls for issuance of a DOD Acquisition Decision Memorandum (ADM) to develop a new liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon (LOx/HC) engine as well as a new generation launch vehicle.  It recommends creation of a joint DOD/NASA program office to manage “investment in a LOx/HC engine risk reduction phase ($141M)” and to provide “options for engines and new launch vehicles in support of Phase 3 EELV acquisition strategy.”  Phase 3 of the EELV acquisition strategy is for the years FY2023-2030.

The bottom line of the study is that actions are needed now, in FY2014, to “mitigate current risk and preserve future options.”

Today, the House passed the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 4355), which includes about $200 million for development of a new liquid rocket engine.  The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) is expected to complete markup of its version of the NDAA tomorrow, but what it will say about a new rocket engine has not been made public.  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) announced today, however, that the committee adopted one of his amendments that would prohibit future purchases of Russian rocket engines to launch national security satellites.  The appropriations committees in the House and Senate have not yet acted on the FY2015 defense appropriations bill.

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