The Pentagon will be allowed to continue buying rocket engines from Russia until 2022 under a bill passed in the Senate Tuesday, despite Sen. John McCain’s insistence that the U.S. stop funding “Putin’s cronies.”
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 (NDAA), which passed in a vote of 85-13, includes a compromise between McCain and supporters of the Air Force’s current rocket programs, Breaking Defense reported Wednesday. The deal will allow the Air Force to purchase Russian no more than 18 Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines for defense satellites. The deal stipulates that after 2022, the Pentagon will be forbidden to purchase the Russian engines.
With the firm cutoff date of 2022, McCain said he is satisfied with the compromise.
“This compromise reflects the concern shared by authorizers and appropriators alike that year-to-year litigation of this issue did not serve the Congress, US space policy, or our national security well,” McCain said in a statement. “In order to prevent future fights on this issue, I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that this compromise is reflected in the defense appropriations bill.”
McCain has fought the Pentagon over rocket engines for years. Ever since the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia after their invasion of Crimea, the senator has been vehement about ceasing all imports of Russian-made rocket parts. “Our reliance on Russian rocket engines manufactured by a company controlled by Putin cronies continues to subsidize the corrupt Russian military-industrial base,” McCain told The Daily Beast in May.
The Pentagon worries that without enough suitable American-made alternatives to the Russian engines, national security will be at risk. Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee in May, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that he wants at least two alternative engines tested and approved before discontinuing purchases of Russian technology. “We can hold our noses, buy RD-180s until that situation is created,” Carter said.
United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Air Force’s sole source for satellite launch vehicles until the advent SpaceX, uses RD-180 engines for all rocket programs. SpaceX won their first contract from the Air Force in April, and expects to launch a GPS satellite for 40 percent less than their competitor.
Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., fought to allow unlimited purchases of Russian engines through 2022, USA Today reports. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, where ULA launches rockets from Cape Canaveral, is credited with brokering the deal.
The deal limits the number of engines to 18, which is double what the Air Force needs for anticipated projects. Allowing for a larger number than required will “make sure we have assured access to space,” Nelson said.
The House of Representatives is scheduled to look at the Senate’s draft of the legislation Wednesday, then reconcile it with their own version, which passed May 18. The White House issued a policy statement recently saying President Barack Obama would veto the bill in its current version.
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