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.
National Journal
Alex Brown
May 13, 2014, 10:46 a.m.

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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