Shift in U.S. sanctions could ground Russian rocket engines: general

By Andrea Shalal
United Launch Alliance launches an Atlas V rocket with an United States Air Force OTV-4 onboard from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, May 20, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Brown

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force would ground the Russian-built RD-180 engines that power its Atlas 5 rockets if a U.S. government review determines that several sanctioned Russian individuals have too close a relationship with the engine maker, a top U.S. general said on Friday.

Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, who heads the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, said the Pentagon was reviewing responses about the sanctions issue and related matters in time to meet a Feb. 22 deadline set by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.

McCain last week asked the Air Force and Pentagon to explain why the U.S. government is continuing to use engines built by Russia's NPO Energomash given sanctions in place against Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and other sanctioned individuals, who control the company after a big reorganization.

Congress banned use of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines for military use after 2019, following Russia's annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014.

But U.S. lawmakers eased the ban late last year, worried that it could drive United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, out of business and leave only privately-held SpaceX, to lift satellites into space.

Greaves said the Air Force would abide by U.S. law.

"These folks are on the sanctions list, and if the Department of the Treasury comes back and says there's a problem with that relationship, then we have to work with the Congress and others to determine a way ahead," he said.

Asked to elaborate about possible consequences, he said, "If we're not supposed to be flying the RD-180s, they're grounded."

The Treasury Department declined comment. A spokeswoman for United Launch Alliance also had no immediate comment.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims had ruled on the issue in response to a lawsuit filed in April 2014 by SpaceX, concluding that the purchases were not in violation of U.S. sanctions.

At the time, senior U.S. officials said that control of Energomash by Rogozin could provide a basis for formally blocking the property and interests of the company.

McCain argues the situation has changed due to a new Russian law that took effect in January, which consolidated the Russian space industry under a single state corporation, Roscosmos. Roscosmos is due to merge with the state-owned parent company of Energomash, making Energomash a direct subsidiary, he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Tom Brown)