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McCain Warns Shelby Off On RD-180; Writes SecDef

Posted by Colin Clark on


Russian-made RD-180 engines propel an Atlas V rocket heavenward.

Russian-made RD-180 engines propel an Atlas V rocket heavenward.

WASHINGTON: Sen. John McCain has fired another salvo at the United Launch Alliance over its use of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines, telling Defense Secretary Ash Carter he wants an audit of ULA’s “business systems” and he wants that and more information by Dec. 21.

This latest kerfuffle arose after ULA’s decided to refrain from bidding for the Air Force’s launch contract for six GPS III launches. ULA said it couldn’t provide auditable cost data required for the new contract. The company also said it wouldn’t have the RD-180 engines it needed to make the launch. That’s because Congress limited the number of Russian engines the company could use. Or is it?

McCain says in the letter that “ULA’s use of these tactics is unacceptable.” He says “there was no compelling reason to re-purpose DoD engines other than to attempt to compel Congress to award the Russian military-industrial base by easing sanctions targeted at Vladimir Putin and his cronies.” That is a phrase McCain uses consistently when discussing the RD-180 — Putin and his cronies. He does so even though the US government has said categorically that neither Putin nor his cronies benefit from the engine sales.

McCain is also firing a warning shot at his colleague from Alabama, Sen. Richard Shelby, who wants ULA to get an exemption in the annual spending bill so it can use the Russian engines. A senior member for he Senate Appropriations Committee, Shelby’s office has made clear he will insert language granting ULA access to all 14 RD-180s.

“Definitely a shot at Shelby/Sessions, trying to derail their initiative in the omnibus,” says a well informed space expert. “My read is that even if Shelby succeeds, McCain will overturn the measure in the FY17 (National Defense) Authorization Bill and may even make the restrictions on RD-180 worse (e.g., not even allowing the 4 engines permitted by this year’s bill.”

Elon Musks’ SpaceX, the only viable ULA competitor for the GPS III launch deal, must be salivating at this turn on fortunes for ULA, since a no-bid decision means SpaceX gets the business. (Of course, SpaceX had its own troubles of late, with rocket exploding during launch). The SpaceX Falcon 9 would carry the navigation birds.

In addition to trying to influence Shelby, McCain is probably hoping to influence ULA’s board — drawn from both Boeing and Lockheed Martin — which has been wary of ULA’s future course. The company only gets to spend money quarter to quarter on its new launch system, the Vulcan.

McCain may well be “trying to influence ULA Board decisions by throwing additional uncertainty into the RD-180 availability issue,” our space expert says. McCain keeps saying he wants competition in the space industry. But ULA’s decision to forego bidding on the GPS III launches means reduced competition. And the  launch company, built from the launch divisions of Boeing and Lockheed, isn’t going to be much of a competitor if it doesn’t build a new launch system.

What do you think?