Five veteran U.S. officials, including former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, have endorsed Senator John McCain’s push to curtail the Pentagon’s dependence on Russian engines to power U.S. national-security space launches.
“We have an American industrial base with multiple providers that can produce All-American-made rocket engines,” the ex-officials wrote in a letter to McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Jack Reed, the panel’s top Democrat. “There is no need to rely on Putin’s Russia for this sensitive, critical technology.”
Russian-made RD-180 rockets are used by the United Launch Alliance, which long was the exclusive provider of satellite launches for the Pentagon. The alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., now competes for some missions against billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. The company, known as SpaceX, has fought in courts and Congress to limit its competitors’ use of the RD-180 since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces annexed Crimea and intervened in Ukraine.
The former officials wrote in the letter dated May 20 that “for years, Russia has helped fund its growing military with capital derived” from RD-180 sales and has leveraged the Pentagon’s “dependence” as a “bargaining chip in unrelated foreign policy disputes.” The letter also was signed by former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell; retired Admiral James Stavridis, who was NATO commander; and former House Intelligence Committee chairman Michael Rogers of Michigan.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James and Pentagon officials have testified that building, testing and certifying a new U.S.-made engine will take longer than a 2019 deadline endorsed by some lawmakers.
Current law, established in this year’s defense appropriations spending legislation, allows RD-180s to be used beyond the limit of nine that McCain’s committee had called for in the separate defense authorization measure. Limits on the engine were resisted by Republican Senator Richard Shelby and Richard Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. The United Launch Alliance assembles its Atlas V rockets in Alabama, Shelby’s state, and Boeing has its headquarters in Illinois, Durbin’s state.
The fight is being renewed this year for the fiscal 2017 budget. While McCain’s version of the defense policy bill would again hold the line at nine Russian engines, the House version of that bill would allow as many as 18. The Senate Appropriations Committee’s funding bill for fiscal 2017 says that the Pentagon contracts should be “available to all certified launch providers regardless of the country of origin of the launch vehicle rocket engine.”
The U.S. Treasury reaffirmed in March that it’s not imposing sanctions on the Russian company that makes the disputed engines. McCain says the company is “controlled by two sanctioned cronies” of Putin.
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