USAF Officials Urge Congress to Allow More RD-180s

Top Air Force space officials on June 26 reaffirmed their support for developing US commercial replacements for the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine to launch crucial national security payloads. But, during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces panel, the officials also repeated their warning that unless Congress lifts its ban on United Launch Alliance buying additional RD-180s, there will be a multi-year gap in the Defense Department’s ability to put some larger satellites into orbit. Assured access to space is crucial to US national security, but it is threatened by the restriction on RD-180s, which Congress imposed after Russia’s seizure of Crimea, they said. ULA believes the five RD-180s it already has paid for can support scheduled launches perhaps through 2017, but Air Force Space Command boss Gen. John Hyten said, “my biggest concern is the gap between ‘18 and ’22,” which is the earliest he believes a US replacement can be available. Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) noted that the House-passed defense authorization would allow ULA to buy the 14 RD-180s it says it needs to close that gap, but Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) opposed the increase in its authorization. The differences in the authorization are being negotiated. (Hyten prepared testimony.)