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McCain again goes after Russian-made rocket engines

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the Morelos-3 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral on Oct. 2, 2015.

It has become something of an obsession for Sen. John McCain. And even though his efforts were recently defeated, he’s not giving up in his crusade to end what he calls the Pentagon’s reliance on Russia to launch military satellites.

The Arizona Republican said Wednesday that along with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that he would again introduce legislation that would limit the use of Russian-made engines that could be used in U.S. military and intelligence missions.

“This legislation is vital to ensuring the United States does not depend on Vladimir Putin’s regime for assured access to space,” he said in a statement.

When McCain introduced the restriction last year, the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, said the move would essentially prevent it from competing. This, after about a decade of holding a monopoly on the lucrative launch contracts. Its Atlas V rocket relies on the RD-180 engine. No engines, the ULA said, no launches.

That would leave the Pentagon with a single launch provider yet again, critics of the restriction said, this time SpaceX, which had recently been certified to compete for the launches.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said ULA has had been a reliable partner with a long string of successful launches. And he said that restricting the company’s use of the engine would make it “questionable whether ULA could survive.” He added that he was “not comfortable” if SpaceX became the only provider.

Those concerns were why Senate appropriators lifted the engine restrictions late last year.

But McCain said that buying the engines only serves to help Russian President Vladimir Putin “and his gang of corrupt cronies.” And he said that the ULA would still be able to compete, even with the restrictions in place.

“At every turn, however, the Air Force and ULA, have replied with stalling tactics, stale arguments, and suspect assertions,” he said.

He also said he was frustrated with the time the Pentagon was taking in developing a new, American-made engine.

In a statement Wednesday, the ULA said that the company’s “focus remains where it’s always been: rock-solid reliable launch services for the nation’s most critical satellites. While ULA strongly believes now is the right time to move to an American engine solution for the future, it is also critical to ensure a smooth transition to that engine and to preserve healthy competition in the launch industry.”

Concerns over the engines bubbled up after Russia’s actions in Ukraine raised tensions between the United States and its former Cold War adversary. At one point, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to ban the use of the RD-180s for national security missions. He also noted that NASA relies on Russia to fly its astronauts to the International Space Station, and tweeted that the United States might have to use a trampoline to get to space.

U.S. officials now say they should have developed an American-made engine sooner. While that effort is underway, a new engine won’t be ready to fly for years. The ULA is working with Jeffrey P. Bezos’ Blue Origin, which is developing a new engine, the BE-4, that could be used on the new rocket that the ULA is developing. ( founder Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

In its statement, the ULA said it is “moving smartly” but that “developing, testing, certifying and integrating a new engine into a launch vehicle is complex and will take time to complete.”

Until the new engine is ready, the ULA said that it needs to continue to use RD-180s for its Atlas V. At Wednesday’s hearing Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said it would need as many as 18 engines to be able to compete.

Late last year, in response to the restrictions then in place, the ULA announced that it would not bid on a national security launch contract, paving the way for SpaceX to win it on a sole-source basis.

McCain blasted the ULA, saying that the legislation still allowed it a certain number of Russian-made engines that would allow it to still compete. But the ULA said that the RD-180s it has in stock have been assigned to other missions and were no longer available for Pentagon launches.

But McCain said he found that claim “especially dubious.”

“Instead of setting those engines aside for national security launches, ULA rushed to assign them to non-national security launches that are unrestricted in their use of Russian engines,” McCain wrote last year in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.