A defense policy bill that protects some 1,000 jobs in northern Alabama passed the Senate on Tuesday in a development that Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., also hailed as a "significant victory for national security.
Under an amendment to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act the Defense Department can purchase up to 18 Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines, which are used to make rockets produced by Decatur-based United Launch Alliance – a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.
The RD-180 had been opposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who contended that using the engines enriches Russia at a time when Moscow has been increasingly aggressive. He also accused Shelby of putting local interests above national concerns because of ULA's presence in Alabama.
But Shelby, along with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and the secretary of the Air Force, have argued that there is no current viable American alternative to the RD-180 and that discontinuing the purchase of the Russian engine would mean a years-long delay in the ability to launch national security payloads into space. ULA being in Alabama was also a factor in the senator's position, according to his office.
"The inclusion of this amendment in the NDAA is a significant victory for national security and reflects what Congress has heard time and again from every senior official currently serving in the Air Force, Pentagon, and intelligence community," Shelby said in a statement. "The NDAA now safeguards the U.S. Air Force's authority to maintain competition for the most vital national security and intelligence launches. Not only is this authority critical to ensuring America's assured access to space, but it is also positive news for American taxpayers. "
McCain, who in a battle over the RD-180 accused Shelby last year of helping to enrich "[Russian President] Vladimir Putin's cronies," couldn't gather enough support to overcome Shelby's language. The Arizona senator agreed to a compromise precluding the RD-180 from being used in launches after 2022.