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Turn to private sector to assure access to space

The U.S. needs an innovative, resilient and economical way to assure access to space, particularly for military and government launch programs.

America’s Global Positioning System, secure communications and surveillance satellites are lynchpins of the country’s armed forces. For an adversary that seeks to rob U.S. forces of their ability to precisely target in an urban area, know the location of friendly forces or disrupt sharing of up-to-the minute intelligence gleaned during an ongoing operation, there is no better weak link than space assets.

{mosads}The current national security space-launch arrangement for our satellites and other space assets is precarious at best, and may be doomed for complete collapse in as little as a year and a half if something isn’t done to address the booster engine shortage.

The last government advisory committee recommended that the United States invest billions of new dollars into the development of entirely new booster and launch systems capable of sending national security payloads into space. It turns out there are safe, reliable and American alternatives already available.

Old ways do indeed die hard here in Washington, even when exciting, new, reliable and cost-effective innovations are sitting out in plain view.

The soon-to-be scarce booster engine is the RD-180, which has been the subject of a great deal of news coverage of late. The RD-180 powers the Atlas V rocket, which has been used since the early 2000s to launch surveillance satellites and other military payloads. More importantly, this engine is manufactured in Russia by a giant of the Russian state aerospace and defense sector, NPO Energomash, and sold under a multibillion-dollar contract — money that’s supporting the Russian military industrial base.

NPO Energomash is controlled by the sharp-witted, acid-tongued and occasionally bellicose deputy prime minister of Russia, Dmitry Rogozin. Rogozin, himself no fan of the United States, boasted two weeks ago that Russia was ready to turn off the U.S. supply of RD-180s. This action was in response to U.S. and Western sanctions leveled against Russia after the annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.

While it remains to be seen whether Russia will make good on Rogozin’s bluster, the RD-180 has come under a great deal of scrutiny in the last two months, and deservedly so.

Here’s the immediate problem: the program has 38 upcoming Atlas missions on its manifest. There are only 15 launch-ready RD-180 engines stockpiled.

To the casual observer, this means as many as 23 scheduled launches won’t happen unless more RD-180s are appropriated. Thus, the above-mentioned panel was charged with coming up with a solution to the pending dearth of RD-180s. The results were disappointing. 

The panel has recommended that the U.S. taxpayer spend billions of dollars and the better part of the next decade funding the development of a new engine. Such a plan would do nothing to resolve the current supply chain risk of continuing to rely on the Russian RD-180 rocket motor for U.S. national security space launch.

It’s as if no one in the Department of Defense (DOD) has heard of the already successful American private space industry.

An excellent example is SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle, and the soon to be introduced Falcon Heavy. These are capable of taking all DOD satellites into space at the present time. National security launch missions can be performed today without sacrificing any capabilities, spending additional billions of taxpayer dollars on unproven new technology development or deferring missions long into the future. The DOD already knows what SpaceX can do — it has a successful track record with NASA and commercial launches, and that track record should have seen them certified for national security work by now.

A backlog of national security launches could leave the U.S. blind in several regions of the world, and a backlog that lasts as long as it will take to design, develop, test and manufacture a new booster engine would be unconscionable.

As a launch agent under the 2013 National Space Transportation Policy framework, it is incumbent on the secretary of Defense to “ensure, to the maximum extent possible, the availability of at least two US space transportation vehicle families capable of reliably launching national security payloads.”

The government, of course, should be free to proceed with its new engine design and procurement process if it so desires. If this must be the case, it should be done with wide-open competition, ensuring benefit for the taxpayer as well as enhancing our national security.


Seip was commander of 12th Air Force and Cheney was the inspector general for the U.S. Marine Corps. Both are members of Consensus, an advisory group to the nonpartisan American Security Project.

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