- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2015

The Pentagon has officially said it would face “significant challenges” to ensuring military and intelligence access to space if Congress doesn’t loosen restrictions on the use of Russian rocket engines, but top lawmakers aren’t buying that and are accusing the military of slow-walking.

The ongoing dispute between the Pentagon and Congress reached a new phase last month when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sent a three-paragraph letter to senior Congressional lawmakers.

The two men asked the Senate to effectively repeal last year’s National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 so that United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — could complete the purchase of 14 RD-180 Russian engines to power Lockheed’s Atlas V rocket.

But Congressional leaders who want to end Washington’s dependence on Moscow to launch national-security satellites are frustrated.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Times the Pentagon’s efforts are legally redundant and politically misguided.

“Waiver authority already exists for the purpose of obtaining Russian-made rocket motors for national security space launches. I think the Pentagon is trying to create a bit of fear in the short term with the idea that they can pile up Russian motors that we’ll be eventually forced to use. What the Pentagon should do is work to decrease reliance on foreign motors and Russian motors specifically, instead of working to line Putin’s pockets,” Mr. Hunter told The Washington Times.

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Senators are currently debating amendments to the 2016 version of the National Defense Authorization Act on the floor. The current House version “would prohibit with certain circumstances and a waiver the Secretary of Defense from awarding or renewing a contract if such contract carries out such space launch activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last month the purpose of the ban was to prevent, “over $300 million of precious U.S. defense resources from subsidizing Vladimir Putin and the Russian military industrial base.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, formally complained to the Pentagon in March that the Defense Department was not acting quickly enough to eradicate American dependence on Moscow.

But Mr. Carter and Mr. Clapper said in their letter phasing out the Russian engine may be more difficult than it seems.

“We are working diligently to transition from the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine onto domestically sourced propulsion capabilities, but are concerned that section 1608 [of the National Defense Authorization Act] presents significant challenges to doing so while maintaining assured access to space,” the letter reads.

The Atlas V and the all-U.S. Boeing Delta IV are both used as part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which propels American national security satellites into space. The Russian engines, manufactured by the state controlled NPO Energomash corporation, have been used in 60 missions thus far because of their sophisticated “closed cycle combustion” technology, and have a 100 percent success rate.

But after the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Congress used the annual defense-spending bill to restrict the Alliance’s ability to purchase the rockets at a time when ULA had ordered 29 engines from Energomash, but only paid for 15, leaving the remaining 14 in limbo.

The ban could result in Lockheed running out of their engine supply, leaving only Boeing’s Delta IV rocket, which is being phased out.

Boeing and Lockheed have held a joint monopoly over the EELV program since 2006 giving Moscow a firm grip over America’s national security satellite launch program, but the Air Force recently certified Space Explorations Technologies (SpaceX) to compete for those bids with their Falcon 9 rocket.

Their first application is due June 23.

In their letter to Congress, Mr. Carter and Mr. Clapper said that even if the Air Force certifies SpaceX quickly, losing access to both the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets could leave the Air Force with “a multiyear gap where we have neither assured access to space nor an environment where price-based competition is possible.”

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told The Times that such a gap could endanger U.S. national security.

“A clarification in the FY‘15 National Defense Authorization Act is needed in order to ensure the nation responsibly transitions from the RD-180 to a domestic alternative in a way that does not impact the launch of our national security payloads,” she said.

For now, the Kremlin wants to continue working with the Air Force. A Washington-based official with the Russian Embassy, speaking to The Times on the condition of anonymity, said the rocket engine has helped national relations.

“The RD-180 is considered to be among the best rocket engines in the world,” the official said. “American companies launching space cargoes usually can tell good technologies Such business cooperation serves their interest as well as the commercial interests of the supplier. That is exactly what international trade and cooperation are about. Trade and fair competition should not be subject of political manipulations.”

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