Even as President Barack Obama debates how to punish Russia for sending troops into Ukraine, the U.S. government is reviewing how it might obtain a license for domestic production of Russia's RD-180 rocket engine, an official said.
The U.S. relies on the engines to launch military and spy satellites into space. United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., is the sole provider of medium- and heavy-lift rockets under a program called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV. It uses the RD-180 as the main engine on its Atlas V boosters.
While the U.S. has enough of the engines to support launches for the next few years, officials are concerned that future supply could be in jeopardy because of rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the deployment of Russian troops and equipment into Crimea amid political and social unrest in southern Ukraine.
"The partnership we've had with Russia [for] that engine has been very important, I think, to both of us, but there are number of concerns the Air Force has and others have anytime we're relying on such an important piece of equipment from vendors outside of the United States," Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning said during a breakfast with reporters on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
"It's been a solid partnership for years now," he added. "We have enough of those engines to support launches well into 2016 but are monitoring closely any suggestions that are taking place in the current bilateral situation that might impact our supply."
While Russia hasn't yet publicly threatened to cut off the supply of the RD-180 engines to the U.S., the scenario is one raised frequently by observers who advocate for more competition and suppliers in the military launch program.
"The Atlas V cannot assure access to space when it relies on President Putin's permission to enter space," Elon Musk, chief executive officer of start-up rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp., said during a hearing last week of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.
The company, known as SpaceX, is seeking certification from the Air Force to be able to compete launches in the EELV program. The service has delayed a solicitation for bids from companies to fly a future mission so SpaceX can have more time to become certified, Fanning said.
Also at issue is the expensive cost of launch. EELV is projected to cost $70 billion through 2030, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
On the RD-180, Fanning acknowledged the Air Force "would like to have a more varied supply to such a critical part of our launch -- the engine. We're exploring what that is and how much that would actually cost us, even if we had the license to start up a line to produce that engine in the United States."
There's a "business case analysis that's being done on that right now," he said.