Cutting costs with retired ICBM – new idea from US Air Force

As far as utilization of retired from service Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, American law is far more restrictive than Russian. General John E. Hyten considers it as a thing to be changed in future.

Using retired ICBM missiles for civilian purposes in commercial market is widely used opportunity in Russia. Due the obvious reasons, missiles utilized in such ventures are coming only from arsenal of Russian rocket forces. Such rockets like Dnepr-1 or Rokot are (or in case of Dnepr were) used for launching small to medium payloads to low orbits. For example Rokot was widely used in launches under Copernicus program by ESA for launching Sentinel satellites. Rokot, which is modified UR-100N ICBM,  is able to lift 1950 kg to Low Earth Orbit using Briz-KM upper; Dnepr-1, which is basically silo launched R-36 ICBM, after modifications in Yuzhnoe factory in Ukraine, is able to lift 4500 kg to LEO.. Due the fact that rockets were decommissioned from Russian Strategic Forces it was able to significantly reduce costs of launch service. Rokot used by Eurockot Launch Services, Russian - German joint venture company were bought in number of 45 at the beginning of company's operating. Dnepr which was decommissioned in number of 150 were used by ICS Kosmotras joint venture Company established by Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. These numbers shows that cost of single rocket is low comparing to launch vehicles made especially for contracted launch. Both Dnepr and Rokot were used successfully, but at the moment it seems that their time is ending. Angara rocket will replace Rokot probably until 2024 when last government launches are contracted; Dnepr scheduled launches were limited due the tensions between Russia and Ukraine in 2015 and whole program was cancelled on April 2015. Still during last 15 years both launch vehicles were used and gave time to develop new rockets from the scratch without losing position on the commercial market by Russian space industry.

In USA situation is different; law is not permitting for using military rockets or their parts for civilian missions or selling rockets or their parts on commercial market. Since now only American rocket which was based on ICBM engine was Minotaur rockets family by Orbital ATK. They used solid fueled stages from Minuteman missiles (Minotaur I to III were based on Minuteman I to III) and Peacekeeper missiles (Minotaur IV). Heaviest version, Minotaur IV is able to lift up to 1725 kg to LEO. Still rockets were only used for military launches for example for lifting observation satellites (launch of six SkySat satellites planned for 2016) or during scientific programs sponsored by Department of Defense (STP-S26 mission where eight space experiments were launched). Other companies were not allowed to buy and use missiles and their parts commercially. Number of rockets was stored and need to be maintained by USAF until they reach end of their operational life when they should decommissioned and destroyed without generating any income for USAF. It means that number of missiles is wasted – they are generating only loss. Opportunity of creating new level of public-private partnership was spotted and announced during 32nd Space Symposium (11-14 April 2016) by General John Hyten. He stated that present state could be changed:

“From a taxpayer perspective, wouldn’t it be better to get some value out of that rather than just destroy them? ...If we just make those available, not for free, but available as part of that small business at a right number, I think there’s a sweet spot somewhere that we can find in order to do that"

It obviously good initiative, because seriously it would be better for US Air Force budget to earn money than lose them for destroying equipment which could be used commercially. Still there are few drawbacks. First of all it could be considered as unfair support for Orbital ATK - company could start to sell their Minotaur rocket on commercial market. Other companies will be forced to develop such rockets from a scratch. It would take time and help Orbital ATK to become a leader. Of course, DoD could simply avoid accusing of supporting Orbital ATK by putting ban for commercial utilization of rockets based on surplus parts which are already used for contracted launches, but still there is another drawback. It is possible that companies would stop developing new engines in favor of buying them from military. Buying decommissioned engine is obviously less expensive than designing it for its own from a scratch. It could lead to similar situation as with RD-180 engines. ULA, main DoD contractor, considered buying Russian engines as more economically reasoned than designing own construction. After establishing ban for Russian products (after Crimea crisis) situation became difficult due the limited number of RD-180 remaining in stock. ULA was not able to realize contracted flights without special agree from Senate for ordering lacking number of engines from Russia and there was no American engine which could be adopted for ULA rockets. Law of course could be changed according to concept by General Hyten, but after debate on RD-180 ban it is not much possible. Present trend is rather to force industry to develop new engines than letting companies buying them from US Air Force. Sill it is an option for rescuing budget of US Air Force or help for industry to remain competitive on international market in case when developing new engines will delay.