Congress, Pentagon

McCain presses Air Force for information on RD-180 costs

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) opened on Friday a new front in the ongoing debate about the availability of the RD-180 engine and proposals to develop a domestic replacement. McCain’s office announced that the senator sent a letter to Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense fo acquisition, asking questions about how much the RD-180 engines cost and who profits from sales of those engines.

McCain in particular appears concerned in the letter that RD AMROSS, the US-Russian joint venture that imports the RD-180 engines from NPO Energomash and sells them to United Launch Alliance (ULA), may be marking up the price of those engines significantly. “I am aware of claims that the engines have been sold by NPO Energomash to RD Amross at a much lower price than RD Amross charges ULA for them,” McCain notes in his letter to Kendall.

McCain’s letter included a list of nine questions for Kendall about RD-180 procurement and related issues. McCain even asks what role RD AMROSS plays in the process: “what do you understand RD Amross’s business purpose to be and what value, if any, does it provide in connection with the manufacture of the RD-180?” He also asks Kendall about the department’s cost estimates to both produce the RD-180 domestically and to develop an entirely new engine to replace it.

McCain’s letter comes as another American company is showing interest in the RD-180. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Orbital Sciences Corporation is in discussions to acquire RD-180s to use on its Antares launch vehicle, replacing the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines (“Americanized” versions of the Soviet-era NK-33 engine) that Antares currently uses. A decision on whether to use the RD-180, a solid motor provided by ATK (which is merging with Orbital), or continue to use the AJ26 is expected in the next two months.

Orbital has shown interest in the RD-180 in the past, and clashed with ULA regarding access to it. Orbital filed a suit against ULA and RD AMROSS in federal court a year ago, alleging that the two companies monopolized supply of the engine. Orbital dropped the suit in March but left open the option to refile. (The WSJ article notes that Orbital appears to be in discussions now directly with NPO Energomash, and not RD AMROSS, about acquiring RD-180s.) Last month, the Russian news service Itar-Tass reported that Orbital was in negotiations with Energomash to buy not the RD-180 but a variant, the RD-181.

7 comments to McCain presses Air Force for information on RD-180 costs

  • Malmesbury

    Perhaps Shelby could add some language requesting transparency….

  • amightywind

    The Russians can set the price. I am sure it is exorbitant. Typical of outsourcing. They lure you in with low initial pricing and stick it to you once you have become dependent. It is the story of America in the past 25 years and why our country is in relative decline. Build an RD-180 domestically. National security depends on it. If there is anyone in the Air Force or Lockmart left who approved the decision they should be summarily fired.

    • Willns

      No one is stopping ULA from building a domestic version.

      A US version of the RD-180 wouldn’t be ready until 2019 to 2021. By either date, there’s little chance it would still be needed. If the Russians keep shipping engies, ULA will take them over US versions becuase the Russian ones will be cheaper. If the engines don’t ship, Altas won’t survive, and again, the engines won’t be needed.

      If ULA wants to build a US version, they should do it. The US government doesn’t need to fund it. Government funding for a US RD-180 would be flushing money down the drain.

      ULA is a private company. The government doesn’t need to choose winners and losers. Lockheed and Boeing don’t need corporate welfare.

      The government should ban all Russian engines from government business. The Russians have proven to be an unreliable supplier.

  • Andrew Swallow

    OSC would be taking a very high risk buying a second engine from the Russians. They need a secure supply for the next 15-20 years. NATO is mobilising rather than going back to sleep, this is likely to annoy the Russians.

    • Willns

      OSC should be running away from the Russians as fast as they can and sending chocolates to ULA

      ULA may have saved OSC from a terrible fate. By keeping OSC from accessing the engines, OSC didn’t invest into a doomed rocket. ULA’s trade restrictions could have saved OSC billions of dollars.

      Now that OSC has merged with ATK, their future looks solid.

  • OSC should be running away from the Russians as fast as they can

    I am not generally a big fan of solid rockets, but in this case, this OSC shareholder agrees. My company would be insane to commit to a Russian engine at this time, and I will retain or sell my shares, accordingly.

    – Donald

  • numbers_guy101

    I’m surprised McCain’s letter is not getting more attention in these forums. Reason being, it seems far too detailed, much more than a vague fishing expedition, and more like a set of questions around some insider information. The whole EELV program is so secretive about costs (purposefully perhaps, or through sheer incompetence in DoD contracting or industry management?) that it makes me think the senator was slipped a little help for his memo.

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