The Defense Department will perform some kind of review of the dependence of the US on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a House committee on Thursday.
Late in a hearing by the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the Defense Department’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) asked Hagel about that dependence in light of what he called the “Ukrainian situation.” “Does it demonstrate it’s time for us to move ahead promptly more with a Air Force/NASA funding to develop additional capabilities for making power rocket engines here in the US?” Aderholt’s northern Alabama district is near both NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and United Launch Alliance’s manufacturing facilites in Decatur.
“You’re obviously referring to the relationship with the Russians on the rocket motors,” Hagel responded, although neither he nor Aderholt mentioned the RD-180 engine by name. “Well, I think this is going to engage us in a review of that issue. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
“Do you feel that this is something that is rising to the forefront now with this Ukrainian situation?” Aderholt asked. “Yes, as I just said, I think there’s no question, sure,” Hagel responded. Hagel did not offer further details about what that review would entail.
Hagel’s comments, though, indicate a stronger degree of concern than previously about the availability of the RD-180 engine, which powers the Atlas V first stage. Last week, United Launch Alliance CEO Michael Gass testified to Senate defense appropriators that there was more than two years’ worth of RD-180s in storage to support Atlas V launches should the supply of those engines be interrupted, and that his company had the capability to manufacture RD-180 engines domestically. “We are not at any risk for supporting our national needs,” Gass said at the hearing.
Earlier this week, Air Force undersecretary Eric Fanning confirmed Gass’s comments, saying there was a stockpile of RD-180 engines that would last into 2016. He added that the US was looking at ways to “ensure a varied supply of the engines,” according to Reuters, including domestic productions. Earlier proposals to manufacture the RD-180 domestically were long ago set aside in favor of stockpiling engines, given the time and expense required to establish a domestic production line.