McCain Chides Colleagues for Protecting Russian Launch Engines

  • Armed Services chairman wants to attach a ban to all measures
  • Durbin, Shelby rebut McCain saying they had parochial motives

Senator John McCain, who usually vents his outrage over President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, is aiming it now at Senate colleagues for overturning his efforts to ban the purchase of Russian-made engines for U.S. space launches.

“Today, Russia holds many of our most precious national security satellites at risk before they ever get off the ground,” Republican McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing of the panel Wednesday. Yet, he said, “the Defense Department has actively sought to undermine” his efforts to end dependence on Russian RD-180 engines, and it’s been helped by “the parochial motivations of Senator Shelby and Senator Durbin.”

The dispute is a rare open feud between McCain’s committee, which authorizes defense programs, and members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which provides the funds to pay for them. Republican Richard Shelby is a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, and Dick Durbin is its top Democrat.

‘Disgrace, Shameful’

“It’s a disgrace, it’s shameful,” McCain of Arizona said in an interview, promising to try to attach restrictions on the imported engines on any bill that comes to the Senate floor.

McCain won language in this year’s defense authorization measure, Public Law 114-92, allowing the use of no more than nine RD-180 engines -- five that were already in stock or on order before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and four new ones -- until U.S. industry develops an American-made version.

But the Air Force has said it needs as many as 18 additional RD-180s until a U.S. version is developed. McCain’s restrictions were voided in the two-year omnibus spending bill crafted by appropriators, Public Law 114-113.

The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. that depends on the Russian engines, has an 800-worker plant in Alabama, Shelby’s home state. Boeing’s headquarters is in Chicago, in Durbin’s state.

Sole Provider

The Boeing-Lockheed team was long the sole provider for Defense Department space launches. Its supporters say banning the Russian engines before an American alternative is ready would leave only the newcomer to competition, billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

“Senator McCain believes if you disagree with him, you must be a crook,” Durbin told reporters at the Capitol. “We are trying to promote competition. The problem which McCain will not acknowledge is currently ULA can only launch satellites with Russian engines. The secretary of the Air Force came to me and said, ‘We have got to preserve the option of a second source.”’

“Far from being parochial, Senator Shelby is simply addressing the concerns of the United States Air Force that Senator McCain’s provision will needlessly compromise assured access to space until a reliable American-made RD-180 replacement is developed,” Torrie Matous, a spokeswoman for Shelby, said in an e-mail.

McCain has said ULA could continue using its Delta IV rocket, which has an American-made engine. ULA has said it’s phasing out that rocket because it’s too costly to compete.

McCain said Wednesday that he will introduce a bill to reimpose restrictions on the Russian engines in tandem with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Musk’s SpaceX is based in California, McCarthy’s home state.

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