• Shelby wants to let Lockheed-Boeing launch venture buy more
  • The Air Force says up to 18 more RD-180 engines are needed

Senator John McCain says Senate appropriators shouldn’t let a Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp. joint venture use more Russian-made engines to launch U.S. military satellites than the nine allowed in the annual defense policy bill.

In a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was concerned the spending panel may consider language “that would undermine” restrictions on using Russian-made engines written into in the annual defense authorization measure that he helped craft.

The letter is the latest twist in a debate dating from Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, which produced congressional pledges to wean the U.S. from its long-standing dependence on using the Russian-made RD-180 engine for the Atlas V booster rocket.

Saying the joint venture, United Launch Alliance LLC, is trying “to manufacture a crisis by prematurely diminishing its stockpile of engines,” McCain, an Arizona Republican, said, “Such efforts should not be misconstrued as a compelling reason to undermine any sanctions on Russia while they occupy Crimea, destabilize Ukraine, bolster Assad in Syria, send weapons to Iran and violate the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty.”

Jessica Rye, a spokeswoman for United Launch Alliance, said in an e-mail that “it would be inappropriate for ULA to comment on a letter it has not seen.”

Authorization Bill

The defense authorization measure that’s awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature, S. 1356, would allow the use of nine RD-180 engines -- five that were already in stock or on order before the annexation of Crimea and four new ones -- until U.S. industry develops an American-made version.

Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said through a spokeswoman last week that he intended to introduce a provision allowing more RD-180 purchases in the annual defense appropriations bill.

United Launch Alliance has an 800-worker plant in Decatur, Alabama, that assembles Atlas V booster rockets with RD-180 engines. Tory Bruno, the alliance’s chief executive officer, donated $2,500 in March to Shelby’s re-election campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.

“Until there is a viable American-made rocket engine available for all critical national security launches, Senator Shelby will look for ways to ensure that the Air Force has guaranteed access to space,” spokeswoman Torrie Matous said in e-mail .

The Air Force said it needs as many as 18 additional RD-180s until a U.S. version is developed.

The Boeing-Lockheed alliance told the Air Force this month that it wouldn’t bid on the service’s first competitive military space launch, in part because it didn’t have any RD-180 engines to spare.

That leaves billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, as the only bidder, a turnabout after Musk campaigned against what he called a long-held monopoly on military satellite launches by the Boeing-Lockheed team.

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