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McCain Loses To Appropriators, Threatens Russian RD-180 Ban

Posted by Colin Clark on

Sen. John McCain

John McCain

WASHINGTON: John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes fervently in the importance of the authorizing committees, those bodies charged with making congressional policy and placing restrictions on weapons program spending.

Today, McCain lost a battle against the appropriators, that small group of powerful legislative leaders who decide how much money the executive branch will get to spend. The senior senator from Arizona has waged a passionate campaign to restrict how many Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines the Boeing-Lockheed United Launch Alliance may use to loft enormous national security satellites into orbit aboard Atlas V rockets. (Development of an American-made alternative engine is still in its infancy).

Today, Sens. Richard Shelby and Richard Durbin inserted language into the sweeping 2,000-page omnibus spending bill that lifts the restrictions on ULA’s use of the pool of RD-180s. McCain has charged — in contradiction of formal US government investigations into the RD-180’s manufacturers — that “the result will enable a monopolistic corporation to send potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to Vladimir Putin and his corrupt cronies and deepen America’s reliance on these thugs for our military’s access to space.”

McCain called the maneuver, which Shelby had telegraphed several weeks ago, “a triumph of pork barrel parochialism.”

The final NDAA for 2016 authorized $300 million dollars in security assistance and intelligence support for Ukraine and allowed ULA to use nine RD-180 engines.

“And yet, here we stand with a 2,000-page omnibus appropriations bill, crafted in secret with no debate, which most of us are seeing for the first time this morning,” McCain said on the Senate floor early this afternoon. “And buried within it is a policy provision that would effectively allow unlimited purchases and use of Russian rocket engines.”

The former naval legislative liaison tried to rally his colleagues by saying his fellow authorizers “could be next” and wondered at the effect on our allies.

Senator Richard Shelby questions Secretary of Defense Ash Carter during a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, in Washington, D.C., May 6, 2015. Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey delivered testimony in support of the president's FY 2016 defense budget. DoD Photo by Glenn Fawcett (Released)

Sen. Richard Shelby

“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? 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? Again, this is the height of hypocrisy,” he said on the floor.

McCain said he might impose “a complete and indefinite restriction on Putin’s engines” in the 2017 NDAA.

I’m not sure if ULA could use the engines before the bill passes. ULA has argued it needed a waiver from the Pentagon so it could use all 14 RD-180s in the United States. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work denied the request, saying there was not immediate need for it and that the US could maintain assured access to space with ULA and SpaceX for the time being.

Here’s the language in the omnibus:

  • SEC. 8048. None of the funds made available by this Act for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle service competitive procurements may be used unless the competitive procurements are open for award to all certified providers of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class systems: Provided, That the award shall be made to the provider that offers the best value to the government: Provided further,“That notwithstanding any other provision of law, award may be made to a launch service provider competing with any certified launch vehicle in its inventory 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.”

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