Pentagon leaders have identified Russia and China as the top military threats in a new budget proposal sent to Capitol Hill. Yet at the same time, the U.S. continues to rely on heavy-lift rocket engines from Russia to power its most reliable launch vehicle for national security missions.

As the U.S. military focuses on countering the aggressive behavior of Russia and China, the government simultaneously undercuts that effort by supporting the military industrial complexes of both countries while putting its own space activities at increasing risk.


Recognizing a national security need to launch U.S. military and intelligence satellites with domestic technology, Congress has funded a homegrown replacement for Russian-made RD-180 engines for the past two years. Unfortunately, the Air Force has not been acting with the same urgency as the Congress.

Many members of Congress recognize that continuing to purchase Russian engines provides cash infusions to the Russian military. One RD-180 retails for about $25 million – and the U.S. uses about 10 engines a year. The criticism is that the quarter-billion dollar windfall rewards Russia’s belligerent behavior toward its neighbors and undermines international sanctions.

One of the harshest critics of continued purchases is Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain: Harris 'sounded like a moron' discussing immigration Arizona AG Mark Brnovich launches Senate challenge to Mark Kelly Arizona Democrats launch voter outreach effort ahead of key Senate race MORE (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain said:

“It is morally outrageous and strategically foolish to ask American taxpayers to subsidize Russia's military industrial base when Vladimir Putin occupies Crimea and destabilizes Ukraine, menaces our NATO allies in Europe, violates the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, sends weapons to Iran, and bombs U.S.-backed forces in Syria to prop-up the murderous regime of Bashar Assad.".

The purchases have another downside for the United States. Russia is edging closer to China, which itself has an increasingly aggressive space program and ICBM capability worrisome to the U.S. Russian officials have indicated that China is interested in buying the RD-180 engines. The transfer of sophisticated rocket engine know-how to the Chinese, by an engine manufacturer that the U.S. relies upon for its own super-secret military and intelligence duties, is a major concern.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, told Space News that the report “of potential sales of Russian rocket engines to China adds to my concerns regarding Russia, and reaffirms my conviction of the importance of developing a U.S. engine that ends our reliance on Russian rocket engines.”

China and Russia already work closely together on space-related projects, and rocket engines are expected to be an area of increased cooperation.

“Through its space cooperation with Russia, China is able to gain valuable knowledge from one of the world’s top space powers to advance its own space technology development,” said a 2015 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “Future cooperative activities in space could include joint rocket engine development and a joint Russia-China space station.”

The Pentagon’s most recent public assessment of China’s space launch and related ICBM capability is that they are steadily improving.

“China’s space launch vehicle industry is expanding to support commercial and rapid satellite launch services and the manned space program,” the Department of Defense said in a report to Congress. “The majority of China’s missile programs, including its ballistic and cruise missile systems, are comparable to other international top-tier producers.”

Another concern over China’s advancing space expertise and coordination with Russia is Beijing’s use of the technology to develop weapons that can destroy U.S. satellites. China and Russia are developing and demonstrating “disruptive and destructive counter-space capabilities,” Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, recently warned.

The Air Force is finally moving in the right direction to curtail U.S. support for Russia’s rocket engine industry and, by extension, for China’s space program.

The Air Force recently awarded contracts to develop domestic rocket propulsion systems. The four award recipients are Aerojet Rocketydne, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK and Space X, but they each have different approaches to solving reliance on Russian engines.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s award for the AR1 engine appears to be the only engine that could replace the RD-180 on the Atlas V rocket, the workhorse of the military’s space program, and be used for future rockets. The other awards are funding solutions for new rockets that will require more funding and time to realize.

As the engine awards suggest, the question national security experts will soon need to grapple with is whether the nation should continue to support the industrial bases of Russia and China while spending years to develop and certify a new launch vehicle.

A former national security correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, Rosenberg is principal at EMR Content + Communications Inc., which has consulted for several industries, including aerospace and defense.