A Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine during testing

US Air Force seeks alternatives to Russian rocket engines

The US Air Force will outline their plan to end US reliance on Russian rocket engines for launching military and spy satellites.

The US has focused on finding alternatives to the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engines, powering the US Atlas 5 rockets, after relationships between the two countries grew bitter in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis.

The engines, procured by Lockheed Martin and Boeing who assemble the Atlas 5 rockets under the joint United Launch Alliance, should be replaced by domestically-built devices, which, however, are not yet developed.

According to Lieutenant General Ellen Pawlikowski, the service's top military acquisition official, the US Air Force is now evaluating options and will announce its recommendations in early November.

In addition to seeking alternative engine manufacturers, the US Air Force is also considering replacing the Atlas 5 rockets altogether.

Pawlikowski said many companies responded to an Air Force request for information, and service officials held 19 separate meetings with companies over three days in Los Angeles last week.

Pawlikowski said the Air Force was trying to balance the technical risks involved in any new development effort, costs and schedule as it weighed options.

"What it will really boil down to, is acceptable technical risk ... with the fastest schedule that we can (achieve) at an affordable price," she told Reuters at her Pentagon office. 

Keeping the cost low would help the US launch providers compete with rivals in Russia, France and elsewhere, she said.

"We don't want to end up in a situation where whatever we have is so costly that doesn't give the American industry a better competitive environment," she said.

Companies that have submitted proposals for a new engine include ULA, which has partnered with Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos; Aerojet Rocketdyne, a unit of GenCorp, and Alliant Techsystems.

Privately-held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is also seeking certification of its Falcon 9 rocket to use for launching US satellites – which could provide another option to end US dependence on the Russian engine.

Pawlikowski said the Air Force had dedicated $63m and 137 experts to the SpaceX certification effort, which must be completed in December for the company to compete for the first of seven launches that will be open for competition.

If SpaceX missed the December deadline, it could still compete for the remaining six launches in the future, she said.

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