MH-17 Shoot Down Alters Air Force’s Space Equation

ULA's dependence on Russian rocket engines seems to put the joint venture at risk as sanctions against Russian companies intensify.

Russia builds the rocket engines that deliver U.S. military satellites into space under the current contract awarded by the U.S. Air Force.

The outgoing commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command said Tuesday the shoot down by pro-Russian separatists of the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet that killed 298 people will not result in the end of this agreement. He told reporters at a Pentagon roundtable that sales of the Russian rocket engines would continue.

Gen. William Shelton, head of Space Command, said this even though Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin  threatened in May to cut off sales of the RD-180 engines following the announcement of sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S

The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, owns the contract to launch Pentagon space satellites. ULA buys its rocket engines from NPO Energomash, a Russian company that sells ULA the RD-180 for about $10 million each.

The engines are used in ULA’s Atlast V launch vehicle. ULA has about 15 of the rocket engines in stock with more on order.

ULA’s dependence on these Russian rocket engines could put the joint venture’s dominance over Pentagon space launch contracts in jeopardy.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, has sued the Air Force for the right to compete for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle contract that provides for medium- and heavy-lift launches for military and spy satellites. Right now, ULA is the only company allowed to compete for the contract for 36 launches worth about $9 billion.

However, SpaceX appears to be gaining leverage in their fight for the right to compete for it. Following the lawsuit, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced last week that the service would seek $100 million to hold a rocket launch competition earlier than planned.

SpaceX rockets do not depend on Russian engines and don’t experience the same industrial vulnerabilities should the conflict in Ukraine worsen. ULA announced in June that it will begin work to develop it’s own rocket engines.

However, SpaceX says it’s already developed an engine in the Falcon 9 rocket that could execute 65 percent of the Pentagon’s space launch missions, according to a report by the International Business Times.

Next spring, SpaceX has plans to launch its heavier rocket which could take on the remaining military needs. In response, ULA officials say they already have a proven rocket and questioned the reliability of SpaceX’s delivery capabilities.

For his part,  Shelton commended ULA for starting work to develop its own rocket. But it seems that his comments signal a need for a non-Russian solution offering SpaceX a possible advantage in the forthcoming competition.