2019 Deadline to Replace RD-180 Questionable

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the service is committed to finding a replacement for the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which powers United Launch Alliance rockets, although the congressionally mandated 2019 timeline may not be doable. “We’re trying to get there as quickly as possible but all the technical experts tell me this is not a one-or-two-or-three-year deal. We’re looking at six or seven years to develop a new engine and then [one-to-two] years after that to integrate” it onto a launch vehicle, James told the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel on Wednesday. “To have that 2019 date there is pretty aggressive and I’m not sure we can make it.” Her comments seem to contrast those made by Air Force Space Command boss Gen. John Hyten at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando recently. Although Hyten acknowledged he is not yet “confident that the RD-180’s been adequately addressed, because we don’t know” what the solution will be, he also said the Air Force would meet the 2019 timeline. The Fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill provided $220 million for the Air Force to begin developing an RD-180 replacement, but it also prohibited the service from entering into future contracts with Russian firms. James said “virtually everyone agrees” it’s in the United State’s best interest to “not be so reliant on Russian engines going forward.” However, “The question is how to do it and when will we be ready. We don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face,” said James, referring to when the new engine will come online and when the last RD-180 is available for launch.