Russian News Source Claims Russia Reconsidering Exports of RD-180 Engines to US

Russian News Source Claims Russia Reconsidering Exports of RD-180 Engines to US

Russia Today (RT) is reporting that Russia’s Security Council is reconsidering exports of Russian RD-180 rocket engines to the United States.  RD-180s are used for the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket.

The RT story, based on an account in Russia’s Izvestiya newspaper, asserts that a Russian space agency official told Izvestiya that the Russian Security Council may ban exports of the engines and such a ban “could halt the U.S. space program.”   That is an overstatement since the Atlas V is only one U.S. launch vehicle, but it is a very important rocket used for NASA and national security payloads.  

The RD-180 engines are manufactured by Russia’s NPO Energomash.  A joint venture, RD-AMROSS, was created between Energomash and the U.S. company Pratt & Whitney-Rocketdyne for delivery of the engines.   Pratt & Whitney-Rocketdyne was recently acquired by Aerojet; the merged company is Aerojet Rocketdyne.

RT reports that 63 engines have been delivered so far and another 31 are due to be delivered under a contract signed in December 2012.   The Russian Security Council reportedly is debating whether to deliver the engines under the new contract because of two concerns:  that the engines are used to launch U.S. military satellites and that under the first contract the engines were sold for only half their production cost.

At the same time, Orbital Sciences Corporation, which uses a different Russian rocket engine (the NK-33, which is called the AJ-26 after being refurbished by Aerojet) for its Antares rocket, wants to be able to consider using the RD-180 engines instead.  The RD-AMROSS agreement is exclusive to ULA, however.   Orbital filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which opened an investigation earlier this summer as to whether that the RD-AMROSS arrangement violates antitrust laws.

The comments made to Izvestiya that form the basis of the RT story could be an effort to influence the FTC investigation, to raise the price for the engines especially now that there is an additional potential customer, or both.  Of course, it could be a genuine attempt on the part of the Russian Security Council to prevent sales to the United States, although, as the RT article points out, that would negatively impact Energomash since RD-AMROSS is the only customer for those engines.  In addition, the fact that Atlas V launches national security payloads is hardly new so it would be surprising for that to suddenly become a concern, although U.S. – Russian relations are frayed right now over the Edward Snowden affair and Syria.

Atlas V originally was built by Lockheed Martin as part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.  The decision to use Russian engines on a launch vehicle critical for U.S. national security payloads was very controversial.  Initially the company agreed to build a production facility here in the United States to guard against the possibility that Russia might someday terminate the supply of engines, but that never happened.  The EELV program had a tortuous history in the late 1990s and early 2000s and eventually Lockheed Martin and Boeing created a joint venture, ULA, to build both the Atlas V and the Delta IV.    ULA insists that it has a stockpile of RD-180 engines sufficient to ensure Atlas V launches for many years, although the exact number of engines is not publicly available.


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