US Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning wants to see alternatives to the Russian-supplied RD-180 engine. (Scott M. Ash/US Air Force photo))
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — The undersecretary of the US Air Force wants to see alternatives to a Russian-made engine, but that doesn’t mean the service should immediately begin developing its own.
“I don’t know that we should pursue building an alternate engine,” Eric Fanning said in an exclusive interview at this week’s National Space Symposium here. “But I do think we need to explore ways to mitigate our reliance on the RD-180.
“There are multiple options we will look at,” Fanning said. “One of them could be building an alternate engine, but that could mean inside the Air Force or as part of a public-private partnership. So even that has multiple options inside of it.”
Asked what a public-private partnership could look like, Fanning indicated it could be a way for the service to avoid having to foot the entire bill of a new engine, something he is “very concerned” about.
“It could mean that instead of pursuing a program to build an engine on our own, we invest in private partnerships to sort of launch some competition for an alternate engine,” Fanning said. “It could be research and technology to get things started. So there are a range of options even if you decide you want an alternate engine that’s US built.”
As part of an analysis of alternatives, the Pentagon ordered the creation of a committee headed by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell to study the RD-180 issue. A copy of a presentation to the Hill, obtained today by Space News, showed that committee recommends the development of a new engine to mitigate the risk of relying on Russia.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has insisted it can spread out military launches by moving certain missions onto its Delta IV rocket, which does not use the RD-180, and speeding up the procurement of that space vehicle.
But the panel found that there would still be significant payload delays and that without further purchases of the RD-180, national security launches would be “not supportable” beyond March of 2016.
The RD-180 is a Russian-made engine used by the ULA in its Atlas V rocket. Reports from Russia, including comments from Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, indicated that Moscow is ready to cut off RD-180 sales for military launches; however, Air Force and ULA officials alike have spent much of this week’s National Space Symposium insisting there are no signs that move is imminent.
Like Gen. William Shelton, the outgoing head of US Space Command, Fanning cautioned against assuming the worst.
“There have been clear statements, but there’s been nothing official to follow up on those statements,” he said. “ULA hasn’t been notified formally or even informally about anything we’ve heard in the media.
“So I do think its important that while we look for ways to mitigate our reliance on the RD-180, we don’t overreact to what’s being said in the press or in social media, and take a pause and let this play itself out carefully so we don’t unnecessarily minimize options for ourselves.” ■