Congress Warned Against Sending Taxpayer Funds to Russia for Rocket Engines

Lawmakers expected to spar over proposal to expand Pentagon’s buy of Russian RD-180 engines

RD-180 engines
Energomash employees stand near RD-180 engines prepared for shipment to the United States. / AP
April 27, 2016

Conservative advocacy groups warned members of Congress against lifting restrictions on the government’s purchase of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines for use during national security space launches.

Leaders at Americans for Tax Reform and the Center for Individual Freedom appealed to members of the House Armed Services Committee ahead of a hearing Wednesday asking lawmakers to not allow the United States to send hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to a Russian manufacturer with ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Both groups reacted to suspicions that some members of Congress would propose lifting restrictions on the Pentagon’s purchase of the Russian-made rocket engines during a markup of the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act on Wednesday.

"Besides the fact that America has launch systems more than capable of delivering our hardware into space well into the next decade, lifting the ban is a terrible mistake in terms of boosting one of our main international rivals and undermining the billions that we spend defending against Russia," wrote Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, in a letter to Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Tx.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

"Purchasing these engines would only serve to boost Vladimir Putin’s military-industrial complex and put our allies around the globe in further danger," Norquist wrote.

At the heart of the issue is the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin based in Colorado with a major factory in Alabama that has received government subsidies to launch national security satellites for years. The alliance’s Atlas V rocket uses Russian-manufactured engines.

The ULA and SpaceX are the only two companies that are currently contracted by the government to launch national security rockets. SpaceX manufactures rockets that use American parts, and ULA is working to develop its own engine to power a new system.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R., Colo.) is expected to introduce an amendment to the fiscal 2017 defense spending bill that would give the group 18 Russian RD-180 engines for military competitions, according to a Politico Pro report on Tuesday. Lawmakers who oppose expansion of the government’s purchase of Russian-made engines, including Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.), reportedly plan to counter Coffman’s proposal with their own amendments.

Joe Kasper, Hunter’s chief of staff, told the Washington Free Beacon this week that a move to expand the government’s purchase of the Russian-made rocket engines would remove incentives to produce American-made engines and increase U.S. reliance on Russia. He said those pushing the proposal are essentially looking to stockpile Russian rocket engines, which would force the Pentagon to continue using them even if comparable American-made engines were developed.

The move would also be a windfall for a Russian manufacturer. According to a post written by Timothy Lee, senior vice president of legal and public affairs at the Center for Individual Freedom, the purchase of 18 RD-180 engines would send at least $540 million to Russia, which he said would effectively reward the country’s "worldwide menace."

The rocket engines are manufactured by NPO Energomash OAO, a company owned and controlled by individuals with close ties to Putin.

In response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Congress used defense authorization bills to restrict the U.S. Air Force’s use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for national security space launches in 2014 and 2015. The current fiscal year’s defense authorization bill limited the purchase of the Russian-made rocket engines to nine, which lawmakers said would cover forthcoming rocket launches until U.S. companies can produce American-made engines.

However, supporters of ULA have pushed to allow the government to purchase more of the Russian-made engines, arguing the move would ensure the United States does not lose access to space while American companies continue to develop alternatives to the RD-180 engines.

Sens. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) and Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) inserted a provision into the so-called "omnibus" appropriations bill passed last December that effectively allowed the United States to continue purchasing rocket engines from Russia without limit. The move sparked strong rebuke from Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), who together introduced legislation to repeal the provision.

McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, penned an op-ed in a February issue of the Wall Street Journal accusing Shelby and Durbin of "scheming" to benefit ULA and Boeing, which have facilities in their states.

"We will be funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to Moscow while Russia occupies Crimea and destabilizes Ukraine; menaces the Baltic States and some of America’s other NATO allies in Europe; violates the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; sends weapons to Iran; and bombs U.S.-backed forces in Syria to prop up the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. All this for the benefit of ULA’s rocket plant in Alabama and one if its parent companies, Boeing, based in Illinois," McCain wrote in February.

"It is morally outrageous and strategically foolish to keep buying Russian rocket engines. Every time we purchase another one, we foster our long-term dependence on Russia, even as it threatens to cut off our access to space at any point," the Arizona senator and one-time GOP presidential nominee wrote.

In response, spokesmen for both Shelby and Durbin argued the provision would enable a responsible transition to American-made engines that would not compromise national security.

McCain has argued that there will be no "capability gap" in launches because ULA’s Delta IV and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, made with American engines, can both provide access to space. However, ULA has sought to phase out the Delta IV rocket by 2018 in favor of the Atlas 5.

Norquist emphasized the need to focus on enabling American innovation in rocket development in his Wednesday letter to Thornberry.

"American private companies are on the bleeding edge of space technology development. We should be finding ways of making the tax and regulatory system work for these entrepreneurs to ensure American dominance of space launches instead of subsidizing a rogue regime we are currently spending taxpayer funds to fight," Norquist wrote.

Published under: Russia