McCain blasts fellow senators over Russian rocket engine purchases

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainEpiPen investigation shows need for greater pricing transparency, other reforms Green Beret awarded for heroism during 'pandemonium' of Boston bombing House passes bill exempting some from ObamaCare mandate MORE (R-Ariz.) blasted two fellow senators on Monday for inserting a provision in the 2016 spending bill that allows the U.S. to keep buying rocket engines from Russia.  

McCain argued that the move, by Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Dick DurbinDick DurbinDems gain upper hand on budget McConnell: Senate could drop flood money from spending bill Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (D-Ill.), who sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee, would support Russian President Vladimir Putin despite his aggression toward Ukraine and U.S. allies in Europe. 

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The Arizona Republican also accused his colleagues of favoring ULA, the Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture that produces rockets that use the Russian-made engines. 

"Congressional allies of ULA, including Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, sneaked a provision—behind closed doors and with no debate—into the bill that will effectively allow ULA to buy an unlimited number of Russian rocket engines," McCain said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed

"All this for the benefit of ULA’s rocket plant in Alabama and one if its parent companies, Boeing, based in Illinois," McCain said.   

The move also undid a previous provision in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that limited buys of the RD-180 engine to nine in an effort to cover rocket launches until U.S. companies could produce an American-made engine. 

McCain said ULA should extend usage of its Delta IV rocket, which uses American-made engines, while it and other companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Orbital-ATK work on alternatives by as early as 2019. 

The Arizona senator also called it "morally outrageous and strategically foolish" to rely on the Russian rocket engines, despite Moscow's threats to cut off U.S. access to space. 

"Every time we purchase another one, we foster our long-term dependence on Russia, even as it threatens to cut off our access to space at any point," he said.

McCain and House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have introduced a bill that would repeal Shelby and Durbin's provision.

Shelby and Durbin argue their measure makes sure the U.S. won't lose access to space while producing alternative engines.

"Senator Shelby is as eager as any of his colleagues to end America’s dependence on Russian-made rocket engines," Shelby's office said in a statement on Monday. "However, he also feels compelled to take a responsible approach to ensure that we do so in a manner that does not needlessly compromise our national security.

"Arbitrary and unworkably short deadlines to stop use of the RD-180 for military launches will only impede our nation's ability to protect itself," Shelby's office added.

“What Senator McCain is proposing would cripple America’s ability to launch the same national security satellites we use to conduct surveillance of Russia," said Durbin spokesman Ben Marter.

"Both the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence warned Congress of this last May. America must transition to American rocket engines in a way that supports American national security," he added.

"Interestingly, December’s Defense Appropriations bill actually provided more support for developing a new American-made, engine than Chairman McCain’s last NDAA." 

This story was updated at 3:05 p.m.