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.