SASC Adopts McCain Amendment Prohibiting New Contracts for Russian Rocket Engines

SASC Adopts McCain Amendment Prohibiting New Contracts for Russian Rocket Engines

While one part of official Washington worries that Russia will follow through on a recent threat to prohibit use of RD-180 engines for U.S. national security space launches, another part is working to ensure exactly that outcome.   The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) yesterday adopted a McCain amendment that prohibits future contracts to purchase Russian rocket engines to launch national security satellites.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) issued a press release yesterday (May 22) announcing 11 amendments adopted by SASC during markup of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  SASC has been working on the bill since Wednesday and was expected to complete its work late yesterday or today (May 23).  No announcement had been made by the committee as of 6:30 am EDT this morning as this article went to press.  (Sen. Carl Levin’s website has a press release about a different aspect of the bill that says markup was completed on Thursday, but the committee has not released an announcement or a summary of the action it took.  Levin chairs the committee.)

McCain’s press release did not include the exact wording of the amendment, but it would “prohibit future contracts to buy Russian rocket engines to launch our national security satellites.” 

The amendment also requires the Air Force to “have a full and open competition on two satellites that they tried to sole-source” and for an investigation on “undue reliance by the U.S. space industry on foreign suppliers and parts such as engines.”

McCain sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on May 6 asking a series of questions about DOD’s use of Russian rocket engines and plans by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to accelerate delivery of those engines in case the geopolitical situation between the United States and Russia over the Ukraine situation worsens.  HIs questions focused on whether the purchases violate U.S. sanctions in Executive Order 13661 and the impact of increased costs if deliveries are accelerated.   That followed letters he sent on April 25 to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and, separately, to DOD Inspector General Jon Rymer, asking questions about the Air Force’s decision to award a contract to ULA for 36 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) cores in December 2013 on a sole-source rather than competitive basis,

SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk is suing the Air Force over the award of that contract.  Musk wants to be able to compete with ULA for launches of U.S. national security satellites.  One thrust of his argument is that one of the two EELVs, Atlas V, relies on Russian RD-180 engines and using his Falcon rockets with U.S.-built engines would be better.  McCain apparently agrees.   However, an Air Force review panel recently concluded that there are no easy answers to launching U.S. national security  satellites if the RD-180s no longer are available.   Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently threatened to prohibit use of RD-180 engines for such launches because of sanctions the Obama Administration imposed against him and other Russian officials because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.  Rogozin oversees Russia’s aerospace sector.

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