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Russian Rocket Engine Needs to Be Replaced, U.S. Panel Finds

May 21 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. “needs to develop a domestic” rocket engine to replace the Russian one used in many launches of American military satellites, according to an independent panel advising the Pentagon.

The new engine may cost as much as $1.5 billion and take as long as six years to develop, the panel of government and industry space advisers said in briefing charts submitted to the Defense Department and the Air Force.

The panel’s findings, obtained by Bloomberg News, underscore U.S. national security concerns over Russia’s vow to cut off the supply of its RD-180 engines amid tensions over Ukraine. While the Air Force has said it has a two-year inventory of the engines, the eight advisers said a cutoff may delay the launch of military payloads and increase costs by as much as $5 billion beginning in 2017.

Effects of an RD-180 loss “are significant, and near-term options to mitigate them are limited,” according to a summary of what the panel called its “quick reaction review.” Action must be taken by Sept. 30 “to mitigate current risk and preserve” options, the panel said.

The report bolsters warnings by Elon Musk, the billionaire chairman and chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Musk has criticized the use of Russian engines by United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. that handles all U.S. military launches.

Musk’s Lawsuit

Musk filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims last month asserting that the Air Force has handed United Launch Alliance a monopoly and shut out his company, known as SpaceX. Air Force officials have said they are working hard to certify SpaceX as eligible to compete for future launches.

Jessica Rye, a spokeswoman for the Centennial, Colorado- based United Launch Alliance, said in an e-mail that “it would be inappropriate to comment prior to reviewing the findings.”

The Air Force and Pentagon haven’t endorsed any recommendations on replacing the Russian engines yet, according to the panel set up in March at the direction of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Among its members was former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who’s now chairman and CEO of Arlington, Virginia-based Schafer Corp.

Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, today told reporters “we are working with our interagency partners” at NASA and the White House on what course to take.

‘Too Soon’

“We are evaluating the recommendations” so “it’s just too soon for us to determine” when decisions will be made, he said. “Right now we don’t have a timeline. We want to do a thorough review.”

United Launch Alliance has 16 RD-180 engines in stock for use on launches of Atlas V rockets, compared with 38 planned Atlas V launches through 2020, the panel said. While the venture doesn’t depend on Russian engines for its Delta IV rockets, the panel found it “cannot ramp up Delta production fast enough to avoid payload delays.”

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told reporters in Moscow on May 13 that Russian engines won’t be exported to the U.S. to launch military payloads, amid tensions over Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine and the U.S. and European economic sanctions that have followed.

The advisory panel said that the “near-term actions required to mitigate potential loss” of the Russian engines include accelerating some work on certifying potential competitors, such as “payload integration analysis.”

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