McCain Relents on Russian RD-180 Engines

Capitol Building
The Senate has approved a defense measure that will allow United Launch Alliance to purchase 18 Russian-built RD-180 engines for use in Atlas V national security launches.  The number is twice that wanted by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ).

His committee unanimously passed a draft National Defense Authorization Act that allowed the military to buy nine more, and only nine, to help bridge the gap until an American-made replacement could be fielded. Today, McCain agreed to the double that number to the full 18 RD-180s requested by the administration and approved by the House.

McCain declared victory nevertheless because he won a provision not in the House bill: a deadline of 2022, after which the Pentagon could no longer buy RD-180s, even if some of the allotted 18 were left. That deadline would hold the Pentagon tightly to its goal of developing a replacement rocket by 2021 and certifying it for flight by 2022. If that schedule slips — as happens all too often on high-tech defense procurements — well, too bad.

“I supported this compromise because it contains a legislative cutoff date for the use of Russian rocket engines,” McCain said in a statement praising Flroida Sen. Ben Nelson for brokering the deal. “For the first time, Senate authorizers and appropriators agreed to a legislative cutoff date for the use of Russian rocket engines in national security space launches. As a result, no space launch contracts using Russian rocket engines may be awarded after 2022, and the number of Russian engines utilized could actually be lower than the 18 provided in the House bill.” (Emphasis on “could”).

Read the full story.