Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) will hold a hearing Jan. 27 on Russian rocket engines. McCain has been a vocal critic of the Air Force's reliance on the RD-180 engine. Credit: Roll Call video capture

WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, warned in December his committee would consider an “indefinite” ban on the Russian engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket.

Now, a little more than one month later, the full committee will hold a hearing Jan. 27 on “military space programs and the use of Russian-made rocket engines.”

Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force, and Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition czar, are scheduled to testify as witnesses.

In December, a massive government-spending bill effectively lifted a ban, at least through Oct. 1, on the Russian RD-180 engine that powers the Atlas 5 rocket. As a response to Russia’s 2014 incursion into Ukraine in 2014, Congress had outlawed future use of Russian engines for U.S. national security launches in the 2015  National Defense Authorization Act.

The 2016 NDAA, however,  provided limited relief from the ban, giving ULA access to four more engines for upcoming Air Force competitions. This came after the Denver-based launch services provider said it had assigned five engines that previously were deemed exempt from the ban to nonmilitary missions.

McCain felt the spending bill undermined the work done by leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees to reach a compromise on the issue. In a blistering speech on the Senate floor in December, he said the Senate Armed Services Committee would consider “a complete and indefinite restriction on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s rocket engines” as part of the NDAA for 2017.

The committee also is likely to discuss the Air Force’s plan to develop an American-made rocket engine. On Jan. 13, the U.S. Air Force said it would invest up to $241 million in rocket propulsion systems Orbital ATK and SpaceX pitched as a way to end Air Force dependence on Russian engines. The service has said it could award additional contracts in the coming weeks.

At the same time, the service has awarded seven research contracts worth about $17 million to study various next-generation rocket technologies.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.