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Sen. McCain grills Air Force secretary over Russian rocket engines

January 27, 2016 (Photo Credit: Susan Walsh/AP)


Sen. John McCain did not mince words in slamming the Air Force for its reliance on Russian-made rocket engines, saying the service was using “empty promises … stalling tactics, stale arguments, and suspect assertions.”

“Little progress has been made in limiting the influence of Russia in space launch,” McCain said at a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Today, Russia holds many of our most precious national security satellites at risk before they ever get off the ground.”

McCain, the Republican from Arizona who chairs the committee, directed his criticism at Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force, saying she had not done enough to try to wean the U.S. off equipment manufactured by a near-peer adversary.

The senator pointed to a 2014 investigation by Reuters news service which found that several close allies of Russian Vladimir Putin — all of whom had been sanctioned by the U.S. over the annexation of Crimea — were earning millions of dollars from the rocket engine contracts.

James: My understanding is that was fixed for this contract for the block buy.
McCain: It was fixed?
James: That’s my understanding.
McCain: In other words none of these individuals are now making money off of the sale of these engines?
James: The block buy is price reasonable per the analysis is my understanding.
McCain: And so Mr. Rogozin and Shamalov and Kovalchuk are not making any money off of [this]?
James: I can’t talk to that. I’ve asked the appropriate -
McCain: You should be able to talk to it. These people are people who have been sanctioned by the United States of America.

James said the Air Force does want to stop using the Russian-made RD-180 engines, but that assured access to space is the service’s chief concern.

“In the meantime, however, we must keep in mind, the only launch vehicles that can reach the full range of orbits and carry our heaviest payloads today remain the Atlas and Delta families,” she said, referencing rockets built by United Launch Alliance, the organization that purchases most of the RD-180s.


John McCain
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, is announcing a new pilot program in his state to prevent suicide and give veterans the help they need.
Photo Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

But McCain continued to blast the Air Force for not having an American-made alternative for the Russian engines — which have been in use since 1995.

“It says an awful lot about the current acquisition system when the default assertion from the Air Force is that it takes longer to develop a rocket engine today then it took to develop the entire Saturn 5 launch vehicle that took us to the moon in the 1960s,” the chairman said.

The senator also went after United Launch Alliance, saying that the organization’s refusal to stop using Russian engines was “corporate greed” and that it was “manufacturing a crisis.”

“We must label ULA’s behavior for the manipulative extortion that it is,” McCain said. “ULA seems willing to take whatever steps necessary to extend its questionable dealings with Russia.”

United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between defense contracting giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is the main provider of rockets to the Air Force — and for many years was the only provider.

The company said it needs the Russian-made RD-180 engines for its Atlas and Delta rockets. When Congress announced they wanted to curtail the use of the engines, ULA withdrew from a competition for a contract to launch GPS satellites.

That move brought swift condemnation from some lawmakers — McCain included — who said ULA was attempting to deliberately manipulate the Air Force to ensure it could keep getting its Russian engines.

New legislation

McCain announced he is joining with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to introduce legislation this week that would repeal a provision in a law they say allows the unlimited purchase and use of Russian rocket engines.

McCain and McCarthy object to a provision in the 2016 omnibus spending legislation from the Senate Appropriates Committee that allowed ULA to keep buying RD-180 engines from Moscow until a domestic alternative is available.

“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.”

But 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, Ala. 

Shelby partnered with another key member of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., on the provision allowing the Russian engines. 

"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."

The Air Force has said some relief from a ban on Russian engines is essential to ensure access to space and enable competition. Former acquisition chief William LaPlante said before he retired in January that 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.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and senior member of the Senate Armed Services committee expressed sympathy for McCain's position, but questioned just how quickly the U.S. might be able to stop buying the engines.

"I definitely share [Sen. McCain’s] 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 2015 defense policy bill imposed restrictions on the use of Russian engines after that nation’s invasion of Ukraine. The 2016 defense 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.  But the 2016 omnibus spending bill largely reversed those restrictions, prompting McCain and McCarthy to file their own bill that would restore the restrictions.

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, a sister publication of Air Force Times. "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."

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