The United States Air Force will continue to rely on Russian built rocket engines to loft satellites into orbit thanks to a decision by the House Armed Services Committee early Thursday morning. Originally, the Air Force wanted 9 Russian-made engines for satellite launches in the near future, but in a voice vote reported by The Hill, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado got the committee to approve the purchase of 18 engines for a total price tag of $540 million.
Why U.S. taxpayers are sending $540 million to a Russian defense company controlled (both politically and financially) by Vladimir Putin at time when Russian actions have increased tensions between the two nations is a bit complicated. A politically well-connected joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two aerospace and defense contracting giants, currently builds rockets that are contracted with the Air Force for satellite launch missions. United Launch Alliance, as the venture is known, uses Russian engines in its Atlas V rocket.
Fortunately for taxpayers, the Air Force, and national security, ULA has competition in SpaceX, a private firm that also contracts with the Air Force for satellite launches. None of SpaceX’s rockets use Russian components. For a variety of reasons, the Air Force has decided to use both companies as contractors for satellite launches.
Not everyone is happy with the arrangement. Relying on an increasingly hostile Russia for satellite launches that are integral to U.S. national security doesn’t sit well with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) or Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), The Washington Free Beacon had an extensive write-up on Wednesday outlining their concerns.
Bizarrely, Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) argued that purchasing more Russian rocket engines than necessary is important because free markets are at stake. Smith argued that SpaceX, which doesn’t use Russian engines, would “wind up without competition” if the Air Force didn’t use Russian-built engines for some launches.
The Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank, argued this week that it would be downright “dangerous” if Congress banned the military from using Russian rocket engines. “Banning Russian engines bolsters Putin’s strength,” a pair of scholars wrote, suggesting that if other available means, including a slightly more expensive rocket, were used it would somehow give Russia a benefit it doesn’t already get with $540 million in taxpayer money coming its direction.
Assertions that Russian engines lead to free market competition, and banning them would strengthen Russia’s position against the U.S. are absurdities. In 2014, after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea in the Ukraine, Russia’s top space official threatened to stop the flow of rocket engines to ULA because the venture uses them for military missions.
“Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the US only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said in May 2014 according to industry website Space.com. That was just two months after he was listed as the target of U.S. sanctions by the Obama White House. The month after he was listed as a sanctions target, Rogozin cheekily suggested that the U.S. start delivering its astronauts to the International Space Station via a trampoline. “After analysing the sanctions against our space industry I suggest the US delivers its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline,” he tweeted.
Reuters reported in 2014 that the Russian government owns 86% of Energomash, the engine manufacturer, and an odd middle-man arrangement has an intermediary between the manufacturer and ULA charging a multi-million markup on each engine brought into the U.S.
Foreign policy is tough business, and sometimes you find yourself with strange bedfellows, but there is no reason for Congress to cut a deal with Russia that sends over half a billion dollars to a Putin-controlled company. There is no reason for the U.S. to choose to rely on Russian rocket engines when other options are not only available, but quite viable.