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Congress Wants to Let Military Contractors Buy More Russian Rocket Engines

DC lobbyists and the military industrial complex seem to be stacking the deck against SpaceX.
Image: NASA

Remember last summer, when Congress was very upset that most rockets used to launch military satellites were powered by Russian-made engines? Well, a last-minute amendment to a major military budget bill is going to allow American companies to continue purchasing and using Russian rocket engines that directly benefit Vladimir Putin's defense programs.

A quick recap: United Launch Alliance, a joint space venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, launches nearly every military satellite into space. To do that, it uses RD-180 engines, which power its Atlas V rocket. These engines are expensive, based on old technology, and, most importantly, entirely Russian-made. With Congress and the Obama administration imposing all sorts of economic sanctions on Russia due to its actions in Ukraine, it doesn't necessarily make sense for a military contractor to spend taxpayer money to directly fund Russia's rocket industry.

So, last year, Congress banned ULA or anyone else from using RD-180 engines for military launches after the currently-placed orders run out (which would be in 2020 at the earliest). Thing is, the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes the military's budget, must be renewed every year. And this year, an amendment introduced by Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) would essentially roll back that ban from last year. The bill is slated to be considered by the full House of Representatives and by the Senate this week.

"There are credible US alternatives right now"

The language of the bill allows the use of Russian engines if a company "entered into a contract to procure such rocket engines" before February of 2014. ULA had an additional 13 engines under contract with options to purchase from before that date, which means that, thanks to the amendment, it would be allowed to send an additional $300 million to Russia. The purchase of these engines would allow ULA to launch using Russian rockets through at least 2022 (though this of course could change due to the NDAA's yearly nature).

"It's pretty shocking, isn't it?" Paul Hamill, director of strategy and communications at the American Security Project think tank told me. "An actual, real danger is that the DOD continues doing this, we continue wasting money on things we don't need or shouldn't be buying. What is more frustrating than anything else is that there are credible US alternatives right now."

The most obvious US alternative, of course, is SpaceX, which has been trying to get its American-made Falcon 9 rocket certified by the Air Force, which generally handles space launch certification for the Pentagon, for quite some time now. The company is finally expected to be certified by the end of June.

"Quite frankly, ULA should have developed their own engine years ago"

The company has repeatedly attempted to compete for military contracts, which can be worth more than hundreds of millions per launch (SpaceX's prices are expected to be much lower than those of ULA). The company was finally given permission to compete, but its rockets still haven't been certified by the Air Force due to various logistical holdups.

Even without SpaceX as a viable alternative, the last-minute change to the NDAA makes little sense except as a lobbying push by ULA. In March, ULA announced that it will be retiring the Delta IV rocket, the only one in its arsenal that actually uses American-made engines (it is currently developing a new rocket using American engines, but it won't be ready until the end of the decade at the earliest).

Last year, ULA's former CEO said the company wasn't worried about Congress's restriction on using Russian engines, because it had "another product that is fully compliant and ready to support any of the missions." Then, this year, it announces that it's retiring that "fully compliant" rocket and going back to the Russian-made engines just before this amendment was pushed into the NDAA.

It's worth noting that two of Rogers's top donors are Boeing and Lockheed Martin, though Hamill didn't want to chalk the whole decision up to lobbying.

"There are people at the Air Force and DOD and in Congress who don't understand that there are better ways of doing this, that we need to open it up to the US private sector," he said. "This is a prime example of where change can not only strengthen national security, but can deter other states and companies we have issues with. We can make it cheaper and better here. Quite frankly, ULA should have developed their own engine years ago."

Because the NDAA is such an important bill that must get passed every year, it's especially prone to lawmakers throwing in last-minute changes. Rather than torpedo the entire bill, lawmakers would rather pass it to get it off their plate—and bills like these rarely face any sort of Presidential pushback.

"This is not worth making a big fuss over for most lawmakers," Hamill said. "Having said that, there are serious national security implications. Russia needs the cash, so we actually have the upper hand on this, but Congress is just giving it away. We don't need to be sending US taxpayer money to Putin and his friends."