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Russia Aims to Ground the Pentagon's Satellites

In sanction return-fire, Russia is cutting off access to rocket-engine sales and cutting the lifespan of the International Space Station.

An Atlas V rocket blasts off.(Darrell L. McCall/NASA via Getty Images)

In a surprise move, the Russian government is attempting to limit the Pentagon's ability to send satellites into space, cutting off the U.S. military's access to the engine it uses for many of its launches.

The cutoff, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Tuesday, is a response to U.S. sanctions, which have limited sales of some key space-technology items to Russia. While Russia won't restrict the U.S. from buying the RD-180 engine altogether, sales will be limited to nonmilitary launches.

The RD-180 engine is used in Atlas V rockets, which ferry many of the Pentagon's satellites into orbit. The Atlas V is one of two rockets used by the United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing collaboration that currently sends all military satellites into space.

 

ULA also uses a Delta class of rockets—which don't rely on the RD-180—to launch a variety of payloads.

The military launch program has been in the spotlight of late, as rocket newcomer SpaceX has argued it deserves a better shot to compete for military launches. The Air Force's next five-year block buy allots 36 launches to ULA, with just seven set aside for competitive bidding (that number was originally set at 14).

In response, SpaceX sued the Air Force, calling the process unfair. CEO Elon Musk also asserted that ULA's purchase of Russian rockets could benefit Rogozin, who heads the company's defense industry and is on President Obama's list of sanctioned leaders.

A court injunction blocking RD-180 imports was lifted after ULA, the Justice Department, and other agencies certified the sales did not violate sanctions.

Russia's response, said ULA, was the result of SpaceX bringing the sanction issue to the forefront—and angering Russia. "SpaceX's irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions [and] threatened U.S. military satellite operations," the company said in a statement. "We are hopeful that our two nations will engage in productive conversations over the coming months that will resolve the matter quickly."

ULA says it has a two-year supply of RD-180 engines, so the sales stoppage doesn't pose an immediate threat. "We've always prepared for a supply interruption," ULA CEO Michael Gass said in April interview.

But SpaceX says it illustrates the need to find new providers that can end the military's reliance on its hostile partner. "This is going to put even more pressure on the Air Force [to open up contracts]," said a SpaceX spokesperson. "There is a reliance on these engines based on these sole-source monopoly contracts.… Everything with Russia creates an urgency to this situation."

In addition to the RD-180 cutoff, Rogozin said Russia will reject America's plan to operate the International Space Station until at least 2024, instead shutting down operations in 2020.

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