Ukraine prompts fresh U.S. look at use of Russian rocket engines

WASHINGTON, March 13 Thu Mar 13, 2014 6:48pm EDT

WASHINGTON, March 13 (Reuters) - The Pentagon is going to take a fresh look at U.S. reliance on Russian-built engines to power American rockets that launch large U.S. government satellites into orbit, in light of the Ukraine crisis, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress on Thursday.

U.S. dependence on Russian engines has long been a concern of U.S. lawmakers, but those worries were heightened by mounting tensions between Washington and Moscow over Russia's seizure of Crimea, an autonomous region in Ukraine.

Asked at a congressional hearing about whether it was time for the United States to develop additional capabilities for making powerful rocket engines given the situation in Ukraine, Hagel said: "You're obviously referring to the relationship we have with the Russians on the rocket motors."

"I think this is going to engage us in a review of that issue. I don't think there's any question about that," Hagel said.

Earlier this week, U.S. Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning said the Air Force had enough of the engines to support launches of military and intelligence satellites well into 2016.

The RD 180 rocket engines, which have been built exclusively by Russia's NPO Energomash since 2002, are used by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing to power the venture's Atlas V rockets.

Fanning said the U.S. was exploring ways to ensure a varied supply of the engines, including the possibility of domestic production if the Russian firm agreed to sell a license for the work.

He also said the search for an alternate source of the engines predated the ongoing violence in Ukraine, but emphasized that the U.S. partnership with Russia and the engine maker remained solid despite the crisis.

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