WASHINGTON — Two influential Republican lawmakers plan to introduce legislation that would reinstate restrictions on using Russian rocket engines for US military space launch.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., will introduce legislation this week to repeal a provision in a law they say allows the unlimited purchase and use of rocket engines manufactured by a Russian company.
They say the company, NPO Energomash, is controlled by friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and argue the purchases enrich the Putin regime and fuel Russia’s military industrial base as it occupies Crimea, destabilizes Ukraine, and supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
McCain and McCarthy object to a provision in the 2016 omnibus spending legislation that allowed United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to keep buying RD-180 engines from Moscow until a domestic alternative is available. The Russian engines, part of a US Air Force contract, have powered dozens of ULA's satellite launches of military hardware during the past decade, and ULA has held a monopoly on the launches for years.
“The ever-expanding access to the final frontier is fueled by technology, research and development. Our policies should facilitate a competitive environment that provides the incentive to scale each component required to access space,” McCarthy said in a statement with McCain on Wednesday. “Placing such a critical aspect of our future in the hands of a country that names the United States as a threat is not only foolish, it undermines the ingenuity happening across the country.”
Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican and a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, spearheaded the legislative language included in the omnibus bill, saying at the time it would guarantee America’s access to space and secure approximately 800 jobs in Alabama. ULA has a large rocket factory in Decatur, Alabama. Shelby partnered with another key member of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., on the provision allowing the Russian engines.
The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the use of Russian-made rocket engines for military space launches on Wednesday morning, during which McCain blasted the Air Force for its handling of the situation.
“Instead of picking two promising designs, the Air Force appeared poised to dilute the limited resources across numerous concepts, some of which would require the development of an entirely new launch vehicle,” McCain said. “In doing so, they will all but guarantee that no one will be able to develop an engine to replace the RD-180 by 2019.”
During her testimony, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James repeated the service’s stated position that it needs some relief from the ban — 18 RD-180s in total — to assure US access to space and maintain competition until a domestic alternative is available. At the same time, the Air Force is working with industry to develop another homegrown rocket engine. Elon Musk’s SpaceX last year certified its Falcon 9 rocket, powered by the company’s Merlin engine, for national security launches; meanwhile, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is working on a homegrown BE-4 rocket engine, and Aerojet Rocketdyne hopes to certify its own AR-1 by 2019.
The omnibus language reversed restrictions in the 2016 defense policy bill on using the RD-180 for military space launch, originally imposed in the 2015 defense policy bill as a response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine. In 2016, the defense policy bill limited the use of RD-180 engines to a total of nine and banned the use of the RD-180s for military satellite launches after 2019.
McCain followed the hearing with an impassioned speech for the Senate floor. Afterward, McCain told Defense News his Russian rocket engine ban is unlikely to emerge as stand-alone legislation and would likely become an amendment, tacked on to another bill. His committee's 2017 defense policy bill could be "a last resort," he said.
"We're going to try to do it on any target of opportunity," McCain told Defense News. "Stand-alone is probably unlikely, but amendments — any bill that's open to amendments we can try to amend."
As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Durbin held a hearing in March 2014 about the need for competition, amid concerns about the increasing price of space launches under ULA. That hearing included ULA and and SpaceX, Durbin said.
"We understand that we need competition when it comes to rockets that can launch important satellites into outer space," Durbin told reporters on Wednesday. "We're trying to promote competition. The problem, which Sen. McCain will not acknowledge, is currently ULA can only launch satellites with Russian engines. They haven't developed a Russian engine. We want them to."
Durbin's position is in line with that of Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who have urged lawmakers to allow Russian rocket engines in order to assure continued access to space. Durbin said he was approached by Air Force leadership, urging him to preserve the option of a second source.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and senior member of the Senate Armed Services committee, expressed sympathy for McCain's position and stopped just short of opposing it.
"I definitely share his goals of moving off the Russian rocket, but the Defense Department has laid out a plan to do that," Sessions said Wednesday. "It's taking longer than we desire. What he said to me today is you want a robust competition and you want to transition off the Russian engine. We'd like to go to a far more modern, competitive lower cost system. ... The question is how soon you can force that."
The Senate Armed Services Committee's Ranking Member, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., expressed support for McCain's position.
"I think through the authorization process we reached an acceptable compromise from all the parties. I think DoD was prepared to operate under those conditions," Reed told Defense News. "What Senator McCain pointed out, and I think this is valid is we had a process in the committee, debate on the floor and votes, and a compromise resolution which both sides thought was appropriate. I think that should prevail because it was a product of regular order and compromise."
In December, McCain expressed fury over the provision and used it to attack the $1.1 trillion spending package that emerged from a bipartisan compromise.