John McCain, the powerful chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, is vowing to reinstate a ban on U.S. military use of Russian rocket engines.
McCain on January 27 said he will introduce legislation striking language enacted as part of a massive spending bill last month that eased the ban put in place after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The United States must "ensure we end our dependence on Russian rocket engines and stop subsidizing [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and his gang of corrupt cronies," he said.
McCain cited two Russian executives --Sergei Chemezov and Dmitry Rogozin -- who were targeted by U.S. sanctions and yet their positions in Russia's space and defense industry allow them to personally profit from the sales of Russian RD-180 engines to the U.S. military. Each engine costs roughly $30 million.
"So we now have senior Russian politicians, friends of Vladimir Putin, that are making tens of millions dollars in the pass-through money that is paid for the Russian rocket engines," McCain said.
Congress weakened the ban on military use of Russian engines out of worries that it could drive United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, out of business and leave just one other U.S. provider to lift satellites into space -- SpaceX.
Top Pentagon and Air Force officials defended their use of the Russian engines at a committee hearing on January 27 and urged the panel to allow it to continue until alternatives are available. They said they were moving ahead with plans to fund public-private launch services in 2017.
Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's chief arms buyer, said ULA might not survive if the U.S. military immediately stops using the Russian engine that powers its Atlas 5 rocket.
He said ULA has a second rocket, the Delta 4, that does not use the RD-180 engines, but that vehicle costs "millions of dollars more" than the Atlas 5 rocket and could not compete with cheaper launches provided by SpaceX.
The Air Force last year certified entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX to execute military launches, but has not yet awarded a contract to the company.
Kendall said losing ULA would leave the military relying solely on SpaceX for launches, despite a policy that requires two avenues for launching satellites into space.
McCain and other senators urged the department to provide data on the exact cost of switching to the Delta 4 rocket until other options are available. They said they backed spending more money on that rocket, rather than buying Russian engines.
ULA's recent order of 20 more Russian engines amounted to "a nearly half-billion-dollar windfall" for Russia, McCain said.
McCain also blasted ULA for refusing to bid in an Air Force launch competition last year, despite receiving billions of dollars in government funding to maintain its launch capability.
With reporting by AP and NBC News