U.S. Se­nate should ap­prove Pen­tagon’s full re­quest for Rus­sian en­gines

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Since RD-180s are made in Rus­sia, the re­li­a­bil­ity of the en­gine sup­ply came into ques­tion in 2014 af­ter Moscow in­vaded Ukraine. This worry was not just para­noia — the Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Ro­gozin threat­ened Moscow would ban the U.S. from us­ing Rus­sian-made rocket en­gines for mil­i­tary launches. As a re­sult, the 2015 Na­tional De­fense Au­tho­ri­sa­tion Act di­rected the Air Force to stop us­ing Rus­sian-made rocket en­gines.

Se­na­tor John McCain is es­pe­cially against the use of RD180s. McCain is con­cerned that con­tin­u­ing to use the Rus­sian en­gine would pro­long de­pen­dence on Moscow while Rus­sia oc­cu­pies Crimea and vi­o­lates the 1987 In­ter­me­di­ate Range Nu­clear Forces Treaty, among other se­cu­rity con­cerns. How­ever, Frank Ken­dall, un­der sec­re­tary for de­fense ac­qui­si­tion, tech­nol­ogy, and lo­gis­tics, has noted that halt­ing the use of RD-180s im­me­di­ately will trig­ger ex­tra costs and pos­si­bly com­pro­mise as­sured ac­cess to space.

Congress and the Pen­tagon agree that a do­mes­tic en­gine must be de­vel­oped to re­place the RD-180. Cre­at­ing a new en­gine will take time. Sec­re­tary of the Air Force Deb­o­rah James tes­ti­fied that it takes about six to seven years to develop an en­gine and an­other year or two to cer­tify. Ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, a U.S. built en­gine will not be ap­proved for na­tional se­cu­rity mis­sions prior to 2022, and U.S. mil­i­tary launches can­not be put on hold un­til an al­ter­na­tive Amer­i­can rocket en­gine is de­vel­oped and tested.

The Delta IV launch ve­hi­cle, used for heavy mil­i­tary satel­lites, could be utilised to ful­fill At­las V mis­sions, but costs would dras­ti­cally in­crease. De­fense spend­ing has suf­fered huge fund­ing cuts as a re­sult of the 2011 Bud­get Con­trol Act fol­lowed by se­ques­tra­tion, trans­lat­ing into al­most $1 tril­lion in cuts. The Depart­ment of De­fense must be es­pe­cially cau­tious of each dol­lar it spends in such a fis­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

SpaceX has ar­gued that its new rocket, Falcon 9, could be used as a cheaper al­ter­na­tive to the At­las V and Delta IV. The prob­lem with us­ing SpaceX’s rocket is that its launch ve­hi­cles can­not reach half of the or­bits the mil­i­tary needs to ac­cess — SpaceX is only able to launch four of the eight or­bits the mil­i­tary uses. This means the Air Force would have to spend ex­tra tax­payer dol­lars to use the Delta IV rock­ets for mis­sions un­reach­able by SpaceX. Such a move could put other crit­i­cal mil­i­tary pro­grammes in fi­nan­cial risk such as the Ground-based Strate­gic De­ter­rent (GBSD) pro­gramme.

The Air Force plans to re­place its in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles that make up one third of the strate­gic de­ter­rent with GBSD in 2027. Th­ese mis­siles are nec­es­sary be­cause they shorten the time needed to ex­e­cute the pres­i­dent’s re­sponse to a nu­clear at­tack and in­crease the to­tal num­ber of tar­gets an ad­ver­sary would have to de­stroy to com­pro­mise Amer­ica’s de­ter­rent. The cost to develop and de­ploy the new weapons is $62.3 bil­lion from fis­cal year 2015 through fis­cal year 2044. Clearly, the Air Force needs to spend its funds wisely to fund GBSD and other pro­grammes nec­es­sary to Amer­i­can se­cu­rity.

If Rus­sian en­gines are banned Amer­ica would be­come com­pletely de­pen­dent on the Delta IV for some crit­i­cal mil­i­tary mis­sions. If Delta IV were to ex­pe­ri­ence tech­ni­cal is­sues, satel­lites vi­tal to mis­sile warn­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion will not be launched and can­not pro­vide nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion. Re­cent launch fail­ures by SpaceX and Or­bital Sci­ences are reminders that space launch is not easy, and un­der­score the unique­ness of ULA’s per­fect launch record.

Fur­ther­more, Congress is con­tra­dict­ing it­self when it comes to its de­sire to in­crease com­pe­ti­tion of space launches to de­crease costs. Mo­nop­o­lies over launch mis­sions will un­in­ten­tion­ally be cre­ated if Rus­sian en­gines are banned: the Falcon 9 would likely be utilised for or­bits it can reach and more money would have to be spent to utilise the Delta IV for launches it can only cur­rently at­tain. In effect, ULA will be un­com­pet­i­tive when it comes to bids where the cheaper Falcon 9 could be utilised.

ULA and space startup BlueO­ri­gin have been de­vel­op­ing the abil­ity to pro­duce an Amer­i­can re­place­ment en­gine called the BE-4 that will be used with a new launch ve­hi­cle, Vul­can. This move will al­low ULA to com­pete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in re­gards to cost. SpaceX is also work­ing on a launch ve­hi­cle aimed to ac­com­plish all na­tional se­cu­rity or­bits. The vi­a­bil­ity of th­ese po­ten­tial so­lu­tions will not be known un­til they are tested and cer­ti­fied.

In­stead of wast­ing tax­payer dol­lars, depend­ing on only one rocket for some es­sen­tial mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions and cre­at­ing mo­nop­o­lies on launch mis­sions, the Se­nate should al­low the pur­chase of more Rus­sian en­gines. Even though Moscow threat­ened to stop sell­ing th­ese en­gines, Wash­ing­ton should keep its op­tions open. Rus­sia is still will­ing to pro­vide RD-180s, and has con­sis­tently honored its past ULA de­liv­er­ies with­out is­sue. Af­ter an al­ter­na­tive en­gine is cre­ated and Amer­ica’s ac­cess to space can be guaranteed, the U.S. can halt the pur­chases from the Rus­sians.

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