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Why The U.S. Still Has No Viable Alternatives To Russian Rocket Boosters


Now, when it comes to American satellites, the United States is getting help from a surprising place - Russia. The White House has sanctioned Russian officials for human rights abuses. The Pentagon is spending money to counter Russian aggression. And yet to launch top-secret military satellites, the Pentagon still relies almost entirely on rocket engines made in Russia. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Republican Sen. John McCain can't stand the fact that the U.S. still has no viable alternative to the Russian rocket boosters it's been using for the past two decades.


JOHN MCCAIN: Sometimes you wonder why the Americans are angry, why they're supporting Trump or Sanders or some outsider. Then all they have to do is look at this process we went through with this 2000-page bill.

WELNA: McCain was referring to the omnibus spending bill Congress passed late last year. It knocked out a measure that McCain supported which limited the number of additional rocket engines that the U.S. could buy from Russia to nine. Late last month on the Senate floor, McCain accused two fellow senators - Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama and Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois - of killing that restriction.


MCCAIN: The American taxpayers should be outraged to learn that some U.S. senators want American taxpayers to continue subsidizing Russian aggression and comrade capitalism.

DICK DURBIN: John McCain's wrong.

WELNA: That's Sen. Durbin. He acknowledges that Boeing, which formed a joint venture with Lockheed Martin to launch Pentagon payloads is headquartered in his home state of Illinois. But Durbin rejects charges by McCain that he's defending parochial interests.

DURBIN: I have no use for Putin and his foreign-policy, particularly in the Ukraine and what he's done to other countries. I think I've made that abundantly clear. But John gets so caught up in this anger over the Russians that he ignores the security of this country.

WELNA: As for Sen. Shelby, whose state of Alabama is home to the joint rocket launch venture, he thinks buying more Russian rocket engines is a purely practical matter.

RICHARD SHELBY: Nobody wants to use the Russian rocket any longer than we have to. But that's probably the - according to the secretary of defense - the only game in town until we replace it.

WELNA: There actually is another game in town. It's the American firm SpaceX. But the rocket engines SpaceX makes are not as powerful as Russia's RD-180 engines. They also don't have the perfect launch record that the Boeing-Lockheed alliance has using the Russian boosters. Still, Pentagon officials insist they're trying to break the Russian rocket engine dependence.


DEBORAH LEE JAMES: We affirm are moving as quickly as we can to eliminate the use of the one RD 180 engine.

WELNA: That's Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at a January hearing Sen. McCain held on the Russian rocket engines. She told his armed services panel the U.S. would need to buy another 18 of them at least at $30 million apiece before an American-made replacement is ready.


JAMES: We're marching toward 2019. That's the way all of our urgency is directed. And industry tells us and we certainly think it's possible though it's going to be challenging to make 2019 for an engine.

WELNA: James warned it would take even longer to actually get something into space with that new engine. Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton was clearly unhappy about that.


TOM COTTON: Secretary James, do you believe that Russia is an enemy of the United States?

JAMES: I've said publicly before and I'll say again, sir, that I think Russia's our - the top threat to the U.S.

WELNA: In fact, American space experts believe Russia aims to metal with the same Pentagon payloads its rocket engines boost into space. John Logsdon is a professor emeritus at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.

JOHN LOGSDON: We're using Russian engines to launch intelligence satellites that the Russians would like to interfere with. So there's a kind of crazy non-logic to the whole situation.

WELNA: The week after Congress removed the restriction on buying the Russian boosters, Boeing and Lockheed Martin's United Launch Alliance ordered 20 more of them. Sen. McCain is now pushing a new bill to restrict such purchases, but that legislation has yet to lift off. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.

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