UPDATE 1-Air Force seeks rethink of 2019 deadline for new U.S. rocket engine
(Adds quotes from after hearing)
By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON Feb 25 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Wednesday said it will release plans within months for replacing the Russian-built RD-180 motors that now power some rockets used to launch military satellites into space, but said it would likely miss a 2019 congressional deadline to start using a new U.S. engine.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James told the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee that failure to extend the 2019 deadline could lead to swapping one monopoly provider of rocket launches for military satellites for another.
Congress last year passed a law that requires the Air Force to develop a new propulsion system by 2019 to replace the RD-180 engine that powers one of two rockets used by the current monopoly launch provider, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.
The Air Force has said it expects to certify privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to launch some of those satellites by mid-year, but the process is still ongoing.
James told reporters after the hearing that she was concerned that congressionally mandated restrictions on use of RD-180 engines after 2019, coupled with the higher cost uf ULA's other rocket, the Delta 4, could hand SpaceX a defacto monopoly.
"The question is, would (Delta 4) be cost effective. If it's not, then I fear that we would inadvertently be trading one monopoly situation for another," James said. "And I don't think that's the intent of anyone in Congress."
U.S. lawmakers and military officials last year began to question U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines for launching U.S. national security satellites after Russia annexed Crimea. Continuación...