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Despite ‘New, Tough Sanctions’, US Takes Delivery Of Russian Rocket Engines

The Trump administration and the U.S. Department of the Treasury last week slapped sanctions on several Russian companies and billionaires for allegedly supporting Russia’s military and intelligence agencies in fueling more cyber attacks and other malicious activities.

Despite the newest round of tough U.S. sanctions, Russia will supply two batches of rocket engines to the U.S. Air Force in 2018, Chief Developer of Energomash Scientific and Production Association [the engines’ developer] Pyotr Lyovochkin told TASS on Friday.

“Currently, the production of commercial engines at Energomash is proceeding in compliance with the contracts signed. The dispatch of the first batch of RD-180 and RD-181 engines to the United States is planned for the second quarter of 2018,” the chief developer said.

“And the next batch of these engines will be supplied to the customer at the end of the year,” he added, without specifying the number of engines.

The Atlas III and Atlas V rockets, manufactured by the Convair Division of General Dynamics, along with Antares rockets are the cheapest and most viable solution for the U.S. Air Force in launching heavy payloads into high orbits.

Atlas V’s Business End with Russian RD-180 Engine – (Source: NASA) 

The new “enhanced” Antares at the Horizontal Integration Facility at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport with RD-181 Engine. (Source: Jared Haworth/SpaceFlight Insider)

Unbeknownst too many, the Atlas family of rockets and Antares rely on Russian rocket engines for the first stage. This has become a dangerous national security threat, as the Air Force has become Russian dependent on RD-180 and RD-181 rocket engines. The Air Force’s contract with Energomash extends into the second half of 2019.

The issue about using Russian rocket engines was raised at a recent Air Force budget hearing by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

“Congress has consistently supported funding to rapidly transition from our current dependence on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine for national security space launches while maintaining assured access to space as a matter of U.S. policy,” Shelby said.

He then directed a question to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson: “Is the Air Force on track to successfully transition the RD-180 rocket engine by the end of 2022?”

Wilson responded: “Yes, sir. We are.” Shelby: “So you feel good about that?” Wilson: “Yes, sir. I do.”

The Air Force is currently evaluating proposals from ULA, SpaceX and Orbital ATK for new rockets that will be entirely manufactured in the U.S. However the transition could take a few years.

In 2014, the U.S. Congress became serious about the Air Force’s dependence on Russian rocket engines, and banned both RD-180 and RD-181, amid challenging times between both countries regarding the Ukraine crisis.

Russian rocket engines are the cheapest and most effective solution for the Air Force to blast heavy payloads into outer space, as the ban was quickly lifted in 2015. Afterward, the Air Force placed an even larger purchase order of rocket engines with Energomash for an additional 18 RD-180 engines, in mid-2016.

Video: US Air Force Needs Russian Rocket Engines

The American obsession with Russian rocket engines was last seen during the firing test of Russia’s RD-181 engines held before the launch of an Antares carrier rocket on May 21, which confirmed the possibility the engines could be used multiple times, said Chief Developer Lyovochkin noted in early June.

“We carried out this work as part of our contractual obligations with Orbital ATK. So, thanks to our foreign partners and the Antares carrier rocket, the entire world has been able to become clearly convinced in the possibility of the multiple uses of our engines. Although we have the experience of creating reusable engines (The RD-170 was certified for the 10-time use), today this was demonstrated for the first time as part of a carrier rocket,” Lyovochkin said.

While U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s statement last week addressed the latest round of Russian sanctions: “The United States is engaged in an ongoing effort to counter malicious actors working at the behest of the Russian Federation and its military and intelligence units to increase Russia’s offensive cyber capabilities,” Washington must tread lightly — or, Moscow could strike back with trade restrictions on Energomash’s rocket engines.

How would Washington respond if Russia cuts the U.S. military’s addiction to cheap rocket engines?