McCain, McCarthy team up to ban Russian rocket engines

Two Republican powerhouses teamed up Wednesday to introduce a bill that would stop U.S. military reliance on Russian-made rocket engines for its national security space launches. 

The measure, sponsored by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn McCainReport: Prominent neoconservative to fundraise for Clinton McConnell quashes Senate effort on guns No reason why women shouldn't be drafted MORE (Ariz.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), would repeal a provision in the 2016 government spending bill that allows unlimited purchases of the engines. 

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McCain had successfully limited further purchases of the RD-180 rockets in the annual defense policy bill, but a provision in the year-end omnibus spending package reversed it. 

McCain argues that continuing to purchase the engines, which cost about $30 million each, would reward "Vladimir Putin and his cronies with a windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars." 

"How do you justify such action? The American taxpayers should be outraged to learn that some U.S. senators want American taxpayers to continue subsidizing Russian aggression and comrade-capitalism?" McCain said in a speech on the Senate floor. 

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in March 2014 provided momentum for banning further use of the engines and purchases of more Russian-made helicopters for the Afghan air force. 

McCarthy, in a statement, argued that the U.S. should not be relying on Russia for space launches.  

"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," he said. 

The defense policy bill's ban on the Russian-made engines set up a fight between United Launch Alliance — the company that currently uses the Russian engines for its rockets — and SpaceX, which wants to use its own rockets.

Two companies — Aerojet Rocketdyne and Blue Origin — are vying to manufacture the U.S.-made engines for ULA. 

“Securing access to space is a national security priority and essential to leading in a 21st century economy,”  McCarthy said. "Our policies should facilitate a competitive environment that provides the incentive to scale each component required to access space."  

McCain blamed the provision's last-minute inclusion in the massive $1.1 trillion government spending bill on Senate Appropriations Committee member Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a supporter of ULA. 

McCain said Shelby also appropriated $225 million in the spending bill for a ship the Navy did not need, in order to benefit a company in his state.  

"Sometimes we wonder why the Americans are angry, why they're supporting Trump or Sanders or some outsider. All they have to do is look at this process we went through with the 2,000-page bill," he said. 

"It wasn't just the rocket engines — it was hundreds of millions of dollars in unnamed projects. It was $225 million dollars for a ship that the Navy neither wants nor needs," he added. 

Senior Pentagon officials defended the Air Force's continued use of the Russian-made engines during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday. 

Air Force Secretary Deborah James, who testified at the hearing, recommended a stockpile of 18 of the Russian-made rocket engines until a comparable American-made engine can be tested and fielded, which industry and defense officials estimate could be somewhere between 2019 to 2021.