House panel doubles authorized purchase of Russian rocket engines

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The House Armed Services Committee voted Thursday morning to double the allowed purchase of Russian-made rocket engines from nine to 18, despite a desire to develop an American-made alternative. 

The committee adopted the amendment, by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), by voice vote, after vigorous debate that did not fall along party lines. 

{mosads}The Air Force relies on United Launch Alliance — a Lockheed and Boeing joint venture — for its sensitive national security space launches, which uses a launch vehicle reliant on the RD-180 engines. 

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, lawmakers sought to cut ties with Russian defense companies and end reliance on the Russian rocket engines by as early as 2019. 

However, the Air Force and supporters of ULA have argued that ending reliance on the engines prematurely could leave the service without the ability to launch the sensitive payloads into space.  

“Assured access to space is indispensable for our national security,” said Coffman. “[I’m] aware of the need to end our reliance to Russian rocket engines but not at the expense of the required of assured access.” 

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) pushed back heavily against the amendment. 

“There’s no reason to line Putin’s pockets … when we don’t need 18 right now, and we could get away with nine or 10,” he said, noting the Air Force said they needed up to 18, not 18 exactly. 

“You are literally contributing $540 million to Russia’s military modernization,” he added.  

Ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he supported the amendment for the sake of competition.  

“SpaceX has built a launch engine and a vehicle that will fill this space,” he said. However, buying more RD-180s would be necessary so SpaceX would not “wind up without competition” until another American-made engine is fielded.  

“The purpose of buying these engines is that there’s an alternative,” he said. 

Smith added that “the number 18 is pulled pretty much out of thin air,” but said, “Though the 18 isn’t perfect, I will support that bridge of 18.” 

The committee subsequently voted by a voice vote for an amendment by Smith to increase funding to develop a new launch vehicle to go along with development of a new American-made engine, which he said has been mostly funded by the private sector. 

“We do desperately need a launch vehicle,” he said. 

Recorded votes were not requested for either. 

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