By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON, March 11 The crisis in Ukraine has
not jeopardized the longstanding relationship between the U.S.
Air Force and the Russian company that builds engines for the
rockets used to launch large U.S. government satellites, a U.S.
official said on Tuesday.
"We are monitoring very closely the current bilateral
situation to make sure that we can protect that supply," said
Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning. "I have not seen anything
on either side suggesting that supply is in jeopardy."
The RD 180 rocket engines are used by United Launch
Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and
Boeing Co to power the venture's Atlas V rockets.
Fanning told reporters the Air Force had enough of the
engines, which have been built exclusively by Russia's NPO
Energomash since 2002, to support launches of military and
intelligence satellites well into 2016.
U.S. reliance on Russian engines has long concerned U.S.
lawmakers, but those worries were heightened by mounting
tensions between the United States and Russia over Russia's
seizure of Crimea, an autonomous region in Ukraine. U.S. Senator
Richard Durbin, who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee's
defense subcommittee, raised those concerns during a March 5
hearing on efforts to reduce the cost of the Air Force's program
for launching large security satellites.
"Given the turmoil going on in Ukraine and Russia, it's more
important now than ever to reinvest in America's own space
infrastructure and programs," said Stephen Cheney, a retired
Marine Corps general and chief executive of the nonprofit
American Security Project. "Continuing to launch U.S. rockets
into space that are powered by a Russian-made engine puts our
national security and military readiness at risk."
Fanning said the United States was exploring ways to ensure
a varied supply of the engines, including possible production in
the United States if the Russian firm agreed to sell a license
for the work.
"There are a number of concerns that the Air Force has, and
others have, any time we're relying on such an important piece
of equipment from vendors outside the United States," he said.
Fanning 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
He also said the Air Force was keeping an eye on a Pentagon
investigation into how U.S. weapons makers manage their supply
chains after Chinese raw materials or components were found on
U.S. weapons systems, including Lockheed Martin's F-35 and F-16
fighter jets, Boeing's B-1B, and the SM-3 IIA missile.
U.S. law bans weapons makers from using raw materials from
China and a number of other countries over concerns that
reliance on foreign suppliers could leave the U.S. military
Pentagon chief arms buyer Frank Kendall issued five waivers
to U.S. laws banning Chinese parts on the four U.S. weapons
systems, after concluding the parts posed no risk.
"Frank Kendall has ... initiated a pretty thorough
investigation of contractors and how they manage their supply
chains," Fanning said. "I'm confident in him and I'm confident
there's no risk in the four cases that we've analyzed. But we
are watching that closely."