Still smarting over world reaction to the nerve agent poison assassination attempt on Russian double agent/traitor Sergei Skripal and his daughter (an attack which also killed an innocent bystander in Salisbury, England) Russia has angrily reacted to the US Government’s belated decision to impose very serious punitive economic sanctions on the nation. Sergey Ryabukhin, head of the budget committee of the Russian upper house of parliament, has subsequently threatened to stop supplies of the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine which is used by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. Along with the Delta IV Heavy, the Atlas V is one of the workhorse launch vehicles used to launch various satellites for the US Government and the US Department of Defence.

The ULA Atlas V 551 blasts off using its five solid rocket boosters and Russian built RD-180 engine on mission AFSPC-11. Courtesy: ULA

Comment by David Todd: Of course, the agencies of the Putin-led Russian government may really be innocent in these matters – yes there are some doubts – especially over the very public nature of these murder attempts (see below). However, given that so many Russian dissenters, double agents and journalists have either been murdered or have died in suspicious circumstances, over the past decade or so, the benefit of the doubt is not really running for them. Hence, why the US financial sanctions are being imposed.

While a retaliatory suspension of supply of Russian rocket engines would be pretty devastating for ULA in the short-to-medium term, ULA does hold a stock of RD-180 engines which would allow it to operate for perhaps a year or so. USA however is not as beholden to Russian engine supply as it once was, and has plans to be even less so. ULA, with government support, actively plans to eventually replace this engine. In the nearer term, standing in the wings is SpaceX which builds its own rocket engines for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy internally. Likewise ULA’s Delta IV Heavy uses the US-built RS-68.  These rockets could handle most of the payloads that the US Department of Defence would want to fly. There would be schedule difficulties – SpaceX famously has a bulging backlog of orders to satisfy – but it could be done.  As it is friendly European launch providers such as Arianespace would be glad to step in if required.

One final thing: Moral considerations aside (the killing of human beings is nearly always wrong), poisoning,- especially using an easily traceable nerve agent such as Novichok (in the Skripal case) or a rare nuclear poison such as Polonium 210 (a Russian Lunakhod rover nuclear heater isotope used to murder of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko) – seems a bizarrely complicated, controversial and public way for Russia to kill its opponents and dissenters. For surely a sniper rifle – or even better –  a silenced pistol – would have been a simpler, stealthier and less publicity-generating method, and one with less risk to innocent bystanders. It is not for nothing that those masters in the art of assassination, the Kidon branch of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, often use silenced pistols as their preferred killing method.  Then again, perhaps the perpetrators of the murder of Russia’s opponents want to court this publicity as a warning to others?

Luger pistol with silencer (suppressor) attached. This pistol was to have been used as a back up/egress weapon for the never enacted Operation Foxley sniper rifle plan to assassinate Hitler during World War II. Courtesy: MarkFelton.co.uk