As the Obama Administration levied new sanctions on Russia Thursday for that nation’s actions in the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the Air Force was studying its reliance on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 rocket engine used by the Atlas V.
At a news briefing Thursday, Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said that, as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel indicated at a House hearing last week, the Air Force was looking into its reliance on the RD-180.
“The secretary directed the Air Force to perform an additional review to ensure that we completely understand all the implications, including supply interruptions of using foreign components for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program,” Kirby said, saying later that he wasn’t sure if this new study was already underway before last week’s hearing before the House Appropriations Committee or was triggered by it. He did note that was not aware of any threats by Russia to cut off supplies of the engine.
Another Pentagon spokesperson told Bloomberg News Thursday that “in light of the current situation, we have directed the Air Force perform an additional review to ensure we completely understand the implications, including supply interruptions, of using foreign components.”
At a hearing last Friday by the House Armed Services Committee on the Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget request, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) asked Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James about the reliance of the Air Force on the Russian-manufactured engine. James stressed there had been a long-running and good relationship with Russia regarding supplies of the engine, and that there was a two-year supply of RD-180 engines stockpiled in the US, but that a study was warranted. “It is something we have to keep our eyes on, and I do want to review it,” she said.
While many are concerned with the potential loss of access to the RD-180 engine should the situation worsen, one pundit is not that concerned. “If Putin does threaten our rocket shipments, we can dip into the two-year store that has been stockpiled for just such an occasion,” writes Josh Gelernter in National Review on Friday, adding that SpaceX can pick up the slack with its Falcon rockets. Gelernter, in his essay, seeks to use the crisis to reinvigorate American space efforts, arguing that the money currently being paid to Russia for Soyuz seats to and from the International Space Station be used to accelerate development of domestic crew vehicles, even if that means temporarily losing access to the station. “If push comes to shove, though, the cost of two years without an American on the ISS is much less than the cost of an unfettered Russia recapturing Eastern Europe.”