WASHINGTON — A massive spending bill announced passed by Congress on Wednesday early this morning would effectively lifts a ban on using Russian rocket engines to power military space launch vehicles, setting the stage for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to re-enter the Pentagon's competition to send satellites into space.
The new language mandates the competition be open to "all certified providers" of military space launch vehicles "regardless of the country of origin of the rocket engine that will be used on its launch vehicle, in order to ensure robust competition and continued assured access to space."
WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain blasted colleagues for including language in the must-pass spending bill effectively allowing United Launch Alliance — a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin — to continue using Russian rocket engines to launch military satellites into space.
McCain said he will vote against the $1.15 trillion omnibus spending package, which includes $572.7 billion for defense in fiscal 2016, over the provision. The language in the bill mandates the competition be open to military space launch vehicle providers "regardless of the country of origin of the rocket engine."
As the lead architect of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which continued restrictions on the use of RD-180, McCain decried the bill for usurping the NDAA's policy-setting authority and "subsidizing Russian aggression."
On Wednesday, hours after late-night release of the text of the omnibus, McCain made an impassioned floor speech in which he accused Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., both key members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, of giving in to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "gang of thugs."
"How can our government tell European governments that they need to hold the line on maintaining sanctions on Russia, which is far harder for them to do than us, when we are gutting our own policy in this way," McCain said. "How can we tell our French allies, in particular, that they should not sell Vladimir Putin amphibious assault ships, as we have, and then turn around and try to buy rocket engines from Putin's cronies?"
McCain accused Shelby and Durbin of "pork barrel parochialism" as a rocket factory in Alabama may benefit from the provision, as would Boeing, headquartered in Illinois. McCain vented his anger at legislators for adding the provision to a 2,000-page omnibus "in the dark of night," instead of raising objections as part of the debate of the policy bill. He threatened to use next year's defense policy bill to "look at a complete and indefinite restriction" on Russian-made engines.
ULA's exit from the competition initially seemed to benefit Elon Musk's SpaceX, ULA's only competition to send military satellites into space. But was seen by some as a political play designed to force the government to lift the RD-180 ban, which was established in response to Moscow's invasion of Crimea last year.
"Recent attempts by the incumbent contractor to manufacture a crisis by prematurely diminishing its stockpile of engines purchased prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea should be viewed with skepticism and scrutinized heavily," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote in a November letter.
McCain, who has in the past accused ULA of manufacturing a crisis, reiterated the claim on Wednesday, saying ULA assigned RD-180s in its inventory, purchased before the invasion of Ukraine, to unrestricted, non-national security launches, to diminish the supply.
The House Armed Services Committee's ranking Democrat, Adam Smith said he agrees with McCain that the defense policy bill was wrongly undermined by the provision in the omnibus. He said he was undecided whether he would vote against the omnibus over the issue.
"I think that they got played by ULA and so I'm worried about that," Smith said of appropriators.
Some relief from the ban is essential to ensure access to space and enabling competition, the Air Force has said. Outgoing acquisition chief William LaPlante recently said the service needs up to 18 RD-180 engines through fiscal 2022.
"We believe authorization to use up to 18 RD-180 engines in the competitive procurement and award of launch service contracts through Fiscal Year 2022 is a reasonable starting point to mitigate risk associated with assured access to space and to enable competition," LaPlante wrote in a July 16 letter to Shelby.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.