- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2015

Top lawmakers are angrily accusing the Air Force of slow-walking a congressional mandate to stop using Russian rocket engines for spy satellite launches up through 2019, a move driven by Capitol Hill outrage over the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine.

Sens. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, and Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, are frustrated that the Air Force has spent less than half of the $220 million fiscal year 2015 funds that Congress has set aside for the replacement engine program.

“Given the urgency of the situation and clear guidance from Congress, I am concerned at the lack of action exhibited by DOD and the Air Force,” the senators, the top men on the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in a March 10 letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

“There has been insufficient use of FY 2015 funding to expeditiously reduce risk and begin development of the new rocket propulsion system,” said the letter, which was obtained by The Washington Times.

A House hearing on the issue is scheduled for Tuesday.

Industry experts say the Air Force is willing to delay the mandate — and essentially break the law — in a quest to save cash.

That cash-savings plan, experts say, centers around requiring a private company or companies to foot most of the bill for the engine using a cost estimate based on the assumption there also would be a new commercial market for the rocket launches.

To make that plan work, the Air Force would require the private companies to build more components of the program besides the engines that Congress formally required. Those companies may have to construct a new launchpad and rocket booster, which will be time-consuming, said an expert familiar with the Air Force’s search for contractors willing to build the replacement rocket engine.

In an effort to deflect additional costs on contractors, the Air Force is willing to put Congress‘ 2019 mandate at risk, the expert said on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.

“It is, ‘Look, we don’t have the money,’” the expert said of the Air Force’s feelings on getting a new rocket in four years. “We’ve got sequestration issues. We’ve got all these other problems. We don’t need to take on another problem, and so we don’t want to be saddled with another bill we have to pay. I think that’s at the core of it.”

The ploy has not gone unnoticed.

“A program to replace the RD-180 must follow the most expedient and least risky path to end the Nation’s reliance on Russian launch engines,” the two senators said in their letter to Mr. Carter.

“This means focusing funding for this program on solving our propulsion problem, not on unrelated launch vehicle systems. Such an effort will allow the U.S. to regain its position as world leader in space propulsion. However, my observations to date leave me skeptical that DOD or the U.S. Air Force are following Congressional intent,” they wrote.

The Air Force has depended on the Russian engines for years, but, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Congress told it to develop a new plan for putting military assets into orbit. That order has met resistance within the Air Force, which said trying to find an alternative provider in four years is unrealistic.

Air Force spokesman Capt. Chris Hoyler declined to comment on where the replacement rocket plan fell on the Air Force’s priorities. Instead, he told The Times in an email that the service is determined to develop a plan to replace the Russian rockets.

“The Air Force is committed to ending reliance on the Russian RD-180 as soon as possible, and is assessing the specific impacts from restrictions on its use,” said Capt. Hoyler. “We will assist the Department of Defense in selecting the best path forward for a reliably sourced rocket propulsion system.”

In a February Senate budget hearing, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James raised questions about the time frames.

“All of the technical experts with whom I have consulted have told me this is not a one- or two- or three-year deal,” she told lawmakers. “You’re looking at six years, maybe seven years, to develop an engine, and another year or two beyond that to integrate. This truly is rocket science. These are hard technical problems, and so to have that 2019 date there is pretty aggressive, and I’m not sure we can make it.”

The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday, at which Air Force acquisition experts are scheduled to defend and explain Ms. James‘ stance.

Concerns about the Air Force intentionally dragging its feet in complying with the congressional mandate first surfaced after the service notified a select group of defense contractors in a Feb. 18 request for information that it was searching for “at least two domestic, commercially viable launch service providers” to build “new or modified launch systems” capable of meeting “the entire spectrum” of national security space launch requirements.

The documents, viewed by The Times, show those contractors would need to achieve that goal “no later than the early 2020s” — at least one year after Congress wants the job completed.

There are two major space launch competitors who could feasibly compete for the right to build a replacement engine — SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

SpaceX did not return a request for comment.

Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance spokeswoman Jessica Rye said her company was eager to help solve both the short- and long-term challenges facing the launch industry.

“ULA is committed to working with the Air Force and Congress to ensure that our nation’s launch needs remain met, and there is no gap in launch capability between the end use of the RD-180 engine and when a domestic alternative is available,” she said.

Josh Hartman, a managing partner at consultant group Renaissance Strategic Advisors, said the Air Force has likely presented contractors with an extended time frame for building a replacement rocket engine because it has other priorities.

Mr. Hartman is one of the space experts who studied the military’s dependence on the RD-180 engine and determined that getting rid of the Russian-made product would rock the launch landscape, essentially disrupting as many as 31 missions.

The service is currently under pressure to accomplish various money-based goals, such as growing its cybercapabilities, building new fighter jets and recapitalizing its space assets, said Mr. Hartman, who formerly worked at the Defense Department as undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics and as the deputy assistant secretary for space and intelligence.

“There’s a lot of competing demands on the Air Force budget,” he said. “So I understand why they’re concerned about cost. It’s not just the cost of the rocket, it’s the cost of the rocket in the context of everything else they have to do, and I think that’s a fair argument.”

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