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McCain Lambasts Senate Appropriators for RD-180 Provision

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Dec-2015
Updated: 16-Dec-2015 11:13 PM

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) took to the floor of the Senate today to lambaste two colleagues on the Senate Appropriations Committee for eviscerating language McCain included in the DOD authorization bill restricting the number of Russian RD-180 rocket engines that could be used for national security launches.  The issue pits McCain's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) against the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC).

McCain has been a leader on the issue of restricting the number of Russian RD-180 rocket engines the United Launch Alliance (ULA) may obtain for its Atlas V rockets.  ULA launches the Atlas V and Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) and has been virtually a monopoly provider of national security launch services since it was created in 2006.  ULA is a 50-50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

McCain wants to end reliance on Russian engines to launch national security satellites and to open competition for such launches to "new entrants" like SpaceX.   He wants to build a new American rocket engine to replace the RD-180 and begin using it by 2019.   The Air Force and ULA say they agree with the goal, but not with the timetable.  They insist that it will be several years more -- until 2021 or 2022 -- before a new engine is developed, tested and certified to launch expensive national security satellites.

McCain included language in the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) limiting to nine the number of engines ULA may obtain as part of a total of 14 that the company planned to use for competitive launch procurements.  ULA wants all 14.

ULA builds its rockets in Decatur, AL and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) is a strong advocate for the company.  He is also a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  During markup of the FY2016 DOD appropriations bill earlier this year, Shelby, SAC Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS), and SAC ranking member Dick Durbin (D-IL) made clear that they wanted to give the Air Force and ULA what they wanted.  Strictly speaking, this is a policy question that would be dealt with by an authorizing committee (SASC), not appropriators who are supposed to deal with funding.

The final FY2016 DOD appropriations bill, which is Division C of the omnibus appropriations bill that congressional negotiators agreed to overnight, includes a provision the undermines McCain's provision in the NDAA, however.

Section 8048 of Division C states that:  "None of the funds made available by this Act for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle service competitive procurements may be used unless the competitive procurements are open for award to all certified providers of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class systems: Provided, That the award shall be made to the provider that offers the best value to the government: Provided further, that notwithstanding any other provision of law, award may be made to a launch service provider competing with any certified launch vehicle in its inventory regardless of the country of origin of the rocket engine that will be used on its launch vehicle, in order to ensure  robust competition and continued assured access to space.

The "notwithstanding any other provision of law" language makes the NDAA irrelevant in this context.

McCain delivered a blistering speech on the Senate floor today calling out Shelby and Durbin for overturning the NDAA provision:  "This is outrageous.  And this is shameful.  And it is the height of hypocrisy, especially for my colleagues who claim to care about the plight of Ukraine and the need to punish Russia for its aggression."  Neither Shelby nor Durbin raised objections when the NDAA was approved by the Senate, McCain said, and instead "crafted a provision in secret with no debate to overturn the will of the Senate" as expressed in both the FY2015 and FY2016 NDAAs.  He vowed that the issue "will not go unaddressed" in next year's NDAA and "perhaps we need to look at a complete and indefinite restriction on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's rocket engines. ... I simply cannot allow Senator Shelby, Senator Durbin, the Senate Appropriations Committee, or any other member of this body to craft a ... bill that allows a monopolistic corporation to do business with Russian oligarchs to buy overpriced rocket engines that fund Russia's belligerence in Crimea and Ukraine, its support for Assad in Syria, and its neo-imperial ambitions."

Shelby said in an op-ed published in Space News that while he agrees on the need to end reliance on Russian engines, he believes "some in Congress have overreacted with ill-conceived legislation that would restrict the near-term use of these engines."  Quoting Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on the need to avoid a gap in assured access to space or the ability to have price-based competition, Shelby argued that SpaceX would become a monopoly provider of launches to the national security community if ULA does not have sufficient RD-180 engines for the Atlas V to be a viable competitor.

The House and Senate still need to vote on the omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 2029).  The two chambers quickly approved another short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded through Tuesday, December 22.  The current CR expires today.   


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