Although US hawks are fuming over the Pentagon's dependence on the Russian engines, it would be dangerous to get rid of them right now, Loren B. Thompson and Constance Baroudos of the Lexington Institute underscore, adding that there are at least four reasons not to ban RD-180s right away.
Firstly, if the Pentagon abandons the RD-180 engines the cost of launching key satellites will skyrocket, the US scholars explain.
"Russian engines are used on the Atlas rocket, the workhorse of the US space fleet. The only alternative for launching big satellites into high orbit is Delta, which costs about a third more per launch," they write, stressing that it will cost the American taxpayers billions of dollars to meet military needs in space if the Russian rocket engines aren't available.
Thirdly, by banning the Russian RD-180 engines "too soon" Washington will shoot itself in the foot: "Any problems with Delta would leave the US with no way to get missile warning and spy satellites into orbit," Thompson and Baroudos emphasize.
And fourthly, much to the Pentagon's regret "rockets don't grow on trees, they take time to build." Indeed, if Russian engines were jettisoned, the US Defense Department would need more Deltas which have not been budgeted. Needless to say, it will take considerable time to build new Delta rockets.
In a word, "banning Russian rocket engines too soon will cost taxpayers billions of dollars for no good reason, make our nation less safe… and maybe unravel the whole military space program," the US scholars insist, adding that although Washington needs to get rid of the RD-180 engines in the long run, banning them right away "makes no sense."
"We can hold our noses, buy RD-180s until that situation is created and fly Atlases with RD-180s. The alternative is to fly our payloads on Delta, which is technically feasible, but much more expensive. And so that is the choice. And we have chosen the choice of going Atlas, recognizing the distasteful fact that it necessitates purchases of up to 18 more RD-180 engines," Carter said before a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin echoed Carter's stance: "There's a belief on the authorizing committee that we should stop cold, not buy any more of these Russian engines. What I have heard from the Department of Defense is that would leave the United States vulnerable."
But that is not all. The US Congress Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to double the purchase of the Russian rocket engines.
Republican Congressman Mike Coffman from the state of Colorado, the author of the amendment, argued that the purchase of 18 RD-180s instead of nine would provide to the Pentagon "assured access to space" which is critical to US national security.
Regardless of Washington's latest anti-Russian rhetoric, it turns out that the RD-180 rocket engines have become "indispensible" to the Pentagon.