Senate compromises on Russian rocket engines

Senate compromises on Russian rocket engines
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A bitter debate over allowing the Air Force to use Russian-made rocket engines culminated Tuesday with an agreement for up to 18 of the engines.

The Senate passed the agreement by voice vote as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual defense policy bill.

Supporters of the engine, called the RD-180, hailed the amendment’s passage as necessary to protect assured access to space.

“The assets we send into space on rockets powered by the RD-180 are essential to our military’s ability to understand what is happening around the world,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a written statement. “While we can all agree that the U.S. should not be dependent upon any foreign power — especially in the national security arena — it would have been far too dangerous to hastily restrict the use of the RD-180 before an American-made rocket engine is developed.”

The amendment was sponsored by Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonGingrich says arming teachers only long-term solution to school shootings Florida students turn to activism in wake of shooting CNN invites Trump to town hall with parents, students of Florida high school MORE (D-Fla.) and co-sponsored by Shelby and Sens. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe siren of Baton Rouge Senate confirms John Demers to head DOJ national security division Senate rejects bipartisan measure as immigration votes begin MORE (R-Colo.), Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetColorado senators pitch immigration compromise Colorado senators mark Olympics with Senate hallway curling GOP Senate candidate fundraising lags behind Dems in key races MORE (D-Colo.) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinAmerica’s waning commitment to the promise of the First Amendment Senate rejects Trump immigration plan What to watch for in the Senate immigration votes MORE (D-Ill.).

The Air Force relies on the United Launch Alliance (ULA) — a Lockheed and Boeing joint venture — for national security space launches, and the ULA uses a launch vehicle reliant on the Russian engines.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers worry about rise of fake video technology Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Trump set a good defense budget, but here is how to make it better MORE (R-Ariz.) has been working to ban the engines, saying their sales enrich Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates.

But the engine's supporters say forcing the Air Force to stop using them before a viable American-made alternative is ready would be costly and could cut off access to space. The Air Force wanted to use 18 of the engines until an American-made version is ready.

As originally written, the Senate’s NDAA would have allowed only nine of the engines.

Under the agreement approved Tuesday, the Air Force will be allowed to buy up to 18 of them. After 2022, the Air Force would no longer be allowed to buy any, however.

The House-passed version of the bill also allows for 18 of the engines.

McCain, who’s been furious at attempts to roll back limits on the engines, thanked Nelson for helping to broker the agreement.

“I know that the senator from Florida shares my commitment to freeing this nation from dependency on the use of Russian rocket engines, which then provides an economic boost, in some cases millions are dollars to Vladimir Putin and his cronies,” McCain said on the Senate floor.

Durbin said the agreement would allow the Air Force enough time to transition off the Russian engines.

“This agreement is a win for America’s national security and taxpayers,” Durbin said in a statement. “It will provide for a responsible transition to American-made engines and guarantee America’s access to space.” 

Gardner, meantime, hailed the amendment as both protecting competition and national security.

“I’m proud that the Senate came together to ensure DoD has access to launch vehicles that it can afford,” Gardner said in a statement. “My amendment to the NDAA promotes competition by requiring the DoD to purchase rockets from certified providers that offer the best possible value. It also protects our national security by ensuring the DoD has the resources it needs to continue space exploration, which includes the ability to conduct a fair and open contracting process among certified launch providers.”