Opening Thoughts: The RD-180 Ban is More About Politics Than National Security

The war against the use of the RD-180 is one being waged on the political battlefield and not exclusively in the arena of national security.   The engine, which is part of the Atlas V configuration, has reliably provided assured access to space for going on a decade with over fifty successful launches. The unique technology of the staged-combustion kerosene-lox engine provides unequaled thrust capability of any current Western rocket engine, which made it an attractive choice for Lockheed Martin (now merged with Boeing to form ULA) to power its Atlas V rocket.

Recent deterioration in Russian relations and a change to a competitive model for national security launches is quickly making the use of the RD-180 non-viable. The RD-180 design is older not necessarily obsolete, but ITAR restrictions prevent ULA from suggesting any technical improvements, which would make the RD-180 more cost-effective. However, more onerous than the technical issues is the political battle being waged against the RD-180 by Senator John McCain. Per the 2015 Defense Authorization Act, ULA is allowed to procure engines ordered and paid for; it is not allowed to procure engines ordered but not paid for. This prohibition puts ULA in a bind because the Next Generation Launch System, which will replace the Atlas V and will be powered by an American-manufactured staged-combustion engine, will not be certified to compete until sometime after 2020. This leaves a significant gap where Space X, which suffered a launch failure less in June, will be holding a de facto monopoly for a significant portion of the national security launch market.

Senator McCain is unsympathetic to the potential of a launch gap citing the risk Vladimir Putin may decide to withhold ordered RD-180s and revenue generated by the RD-180 is finding its way into the pockets of Putin and his political associates. This line of reasoning is flawed simply because money talks and the Russians understand the meaning of a contract, which means things would have to get pretty serious for Putin to breach or void a contract for RD-180s.

Additionally, Senator McCain’s claim revenue generated by RD-180 purchases finds its way into the pockets of Putin et al is unsubstantiated. This concern was addressed by Judge Susan Brayden of the Federal Court of Claims during a declaratory judgment and injunction filed by Space X (Court of Federal Claims, No. 14-354 C) in 2014 that challenged the legality of the so-called “block buy” of 36 cores awarded to ULA, which includes Delta IV and Atlas V cores. Space X alleged as part of it bid protest that the purchase of RD-180 engines from NPO Energomash, which is the state-owned manufacturer of the RD-180, violated U.S. sanctions against Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Rogozin, who Space X alleged benefited financially from the sale of the engines. This allegation prompted the Court to sua sponte issue a temporary restraining order blocking additional purchase of the engine. Per the request of Judge Brayden, the Department of Justice and Commerce prepared an opinion, which determined the purchase of the RD-180 does not violate current sanctions against Russian officials. Judge Brayden lifted the TRO pending proof the purchase does violate current sanctions.  At present neither Space X nor Senator McCain have offered proof that sale of RD-180s violates sanctions.

The potential of a launch gap is not lost on the House Armed Services Committee and prompted the Committee to authorize the purchase of the necessary RD-180s to bridge the gap between the Atlas V and the Next Generation Launch System in it FY 2016 Authorization. Despite this, Senator McCain remains unmoved and suggests ULA can compete with its Delta IV rocket, which is more expensive and less competitive than the Atlas V. This assertion, which is supported and trumpeted by Space X, is nonsensical because on the one hand Senator McCain is insisting on competition and on the other telling a private company it can only offer its least competitive product.

Senator McCain further insists the Air Force spend over $200 million allocated FY 2015 on a “replacement engine” for the RD-180, which would theoretically be available by 2019 and mounted on the Atlas V with little or no modification. Representative James Cooper noted during a meeting of the House Armed Services Committee meeting on June 26, 2015 addressing the issue of a replacement engine that the quest for such an engine by 2019 is pursuing a unicorn. Rep. Cooper’s concerns are borne out by Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, who believes an American engine can be developed to replace the RD-180, but would not realistically be available until 2021 or 2022. This time-frame may or may not include the necessary modifications required to integrate the proposed engine with the Atlas V and obtain certification of the launch system. Moreover, it is during this time-frame ULA plans to have the Next Generation Launch System, which will be powered by a privately-funded American engine, certified and available to launch national security payloads. Beyond the issue of time-frame for development of the proposed RD-180 replacement for the Atlas is the realities of rocket engineering. Specifically, rocket engines do not have “plug-and-play” characteristics like that of laptop and requires re-engineering of the launcher it is mounted on.

Equally confusing is Senator McCain’s insistence for the Air Force to look to NASA for its launch needs in the event of a launcher gap. Yet, NASA is dependent on the Atlas V for most of its critical launches, including the successful New Horizon mission. If the Air Force were to use engines designated for NASA launches, which are not prohibited under the ban, the Air Force and ULA could be in technical violation of the RD-180 prohibition, which Senator McCain would surely take the opportunity to chastise them for.

It’s noteworthy that after the June mishap with the Space X Falcon 9 rocket, Senator McCain instead of reconsidering his position on the RD-180 stated that if it seems a launch gap looks likely in a few years, the law can then be changed to allow for the purchase of RD-180s. This approach is unwise and is in essence kicking the can down the road and hoping that a launch gap doesn’t occur. Specifically, with regards to contracts with the RD-180, despite geopolitical tensions, Russia is still willing to contract for and deliver RD-180 engines to the United States. However, if there is hiatus of orders for the RD-180 because of the current law, there is no guarantee that Russia would be willing to contract for and deliver RD-180s after an interruption prompted by the current law, especially where Russia may find a new customer for the RD-180 in China.

The RD-180’s phase-out is inevitable, but it would be a misstep to ban the engine before a replacement launch system is certified. National security is important, and political fiat must not be allowed to replace the RD-180 in a manner, which will impair assured access to space.

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