McCain Wants Russian Engine Restrictions USAF Says Would Be Costly

John McCain
John McCain

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) continued to push for a ban on the use of Russian-made rocket engines on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V booster at a hearing on Thursday, saying that their use allowed President Vladimir Putin to hold U.S. national security launch capability ” in the palm of his hand.”

“This is a national security threat, in addition to a moral outrage, at a time when Russian forces continue to destabilize Ukraine – including nearly 500 attacks in the past week, as General Breedlove, the Commander of European Command, testified on Tuesday,” McCain said in a prepared statement.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the Senate Armed Services Committee that an early phase out of Russia’s RD-180 engine on the Atlas V would be costly.

“Preliminary analysis suggests that a transition … would add anywhere from $1.5 billion to $5 billion in additional costs…,” she told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The sooner a full RD-180 ban might start, the more disruptive it would be … and the higher the cost would be.”

The Air Force has awarded contracts to Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne to produce engines for use on ULA’s planned Vulcan booster. That booster is expected to be ready for flight tests by 2019, but it would likely not carry defense payloads until several years later.

In the meantime, McCain has been trying to limit the number of Russian engines ULA can import for use of defense launches. Congress reduced the number to nine last year, but that provision was removed to McCain’s dismay from the federal funding bill. Air Force officials have called McCain’s number too low.

“The Treasury Department remains unwilling to sanction Roscosmos, the Russian parent company of the manufacturer of the RD-180, which is controlled by two sanctioned cronies of Vladimir Putin,” McCain said in his statement. “This suggests a level of hypocrisy in U.S. sanctions policy that will only make it harder to convince our European allies to renew their own sanctions on Russia this summer.”

ULA’s Delta IV booster is not dependent upon Russian engines. However, the rocket is much more expensive than the Atlas V.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can replace the Atlas V, but not for all missions. The company’s Falcon Heavy booster, which could replace the Delta IV for heavy launches, has been delayed for three years. SpaceX’s latest plan is to conduct the first Falcon Heavy launch in September.