RD-180 Burns Hot at Senate Hearing

The Air Force’s request to buy enough Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines to support national security space launches until a US-made engine becomes available drew a mixed reaction from the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee on Wednesday. Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he thought last year’s legislation, which banned use of the RD-180, allowed the Air Force to buy all 18 engines under contract before Russia’s invasion of Crimea—what Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Space Command boss Gen. John Hyten said they needed. However, James and Hyten said the law restricts them to buying only the five engines already paid for, which would only support United Launch Alliance’s heavy launches for two years, while a new American engine might not be available until 2022. Sessions’ statement indicated he would support amending the law to meet the Air Force’s needs, which was supported by the panel’s Democrats. But SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said continuing to use taxpayers’ money to subsidize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “cronies” was “unacceptable.” He threatened to use the Fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill to block additional RD-180 buys.