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Space Force: Only 6 more launches with Russian rocket engines

General David D. Thompson is the Vice Chief of Space Operations, United States Space Force. (U.S. Space Force/Released)

The U.S. Space Force is ahead of schedule in phasing out a controversial Russian-manufactured rocket engine for approved launches, the service’s second in command said on Wednesday.

Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations, told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces that while the U.S. military has congressional authorization to use the Russian-manufactured RD-180 rocket engine for up to 18 more launches, current plans are to use them only for six more launches.

After that, Thompson said, “We will then have two separate companies with launch capabilities that are not reliant on the RD-180 engine anymore.” (Thompson’s comments were specific to the Space Force, not NASA, which has additional launches scheduled with rockets using the Russian engine.)

Those two launch capabilities would be the SpaceX Merlin, which is used on the Falcon Heavy rocket, and the Blue Origin BE-4, which is used on United Launch Alliance’s, or ULA’s, Vulcan Centaur rocket. ULA’s legacy rocket, the Atlas 5, used the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine since 2000.

It was a sore spot among lawmakers, particularly the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said in June 2016 that “purchasing these engines provides financial benefit to Vladimir Putin’s cronies, including individuals sanctioned by the United States, and subsidizes the Russian military-industrial base.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told Thompson, the news “would make John McCain very happy to hear.”

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