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Rocket Engine Presents Unexpected Budget Challenge

Rocket Engine Presents Unexpected Budget Challenge

Renewed tensions with Russia has made it clear the US Air Force will have to develop a homegrown rocket engine to launch military equipment. The question is: What does that mean for the rest of the service’s budget?

Following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the Obama administration issued sanctions against top Russian officials. In retaliation, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to cut off delivery of the RD-180 rocket engine, used by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) on its Atlas V launch vehicle, for military launches.

Since ULA is the only company certified to launch Pentagon equipment into space, the threat predictably kicked off a series of concerned statements and demands from Capitol Hill. And while both the Air Force and ULA say there has been no real bite behind Rogozin’s bark — ULA received a shipment of two RD-180s in August — momentum is well underway to develop a new engine program.

Analysts expect it to cost $1 billion or more to develop the new system, turning the RD-180 replacement situation into a test case for how a service must react and adapt its budget strategy when the real world intervenes.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh acknowledged that another major program thrown into his budget isn’t ideal, but described it as the cost of his service’s responsibility to the space mission.

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