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Ernst Questions Defense Officials on U.S. Dependency of Russian-made Rocket Engines

“We can’t let this happen again… I think we need to develop our own technology as quickly as possible.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) pressed witnesses on U.S. dependency on Russian-made rocket engines, RD-180s, used for national security space launches. These launch systems provide space capabilities for military operations, including navigation, threat assessments, strategic and tactical communications within our intelligence communities, as well as diplomatic engagements.

The Iowa Senator sought answers as to why the Department of Defense has not addressed, until now, the national security risk posed by Russia’s ability to withhold the RD-180 engines. Ernst concluded, “We can’t let this happen again. You’ve spoken many times over about the American taxpayer, they expect much better from us. We have to do better… I think we need to develop our own technology as quickly as possible.”

Witnesses on the panel included Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Honorable Frank Kendall III, and Secretary of the Air Force, Honorable Deborah Lee James.

Click here or on the image below to watch.

1/27/16 SASC hearing


SEN. ERNST: Thank you Mr. Chair, Thank you to Secretary James and Secretary Kendall for being here as well. I think you’ve heard today, we’re all just very disappointed in the way the process has gone so far. We have an opportunity now to move forward in a different direction, so I’m not going to hammer so much that but the fact that I’m assuming for decades the air force has known that the RD-180 could be withheld by the Russians at some point, so why is the solution just now being addressed? I would have thought this is something that should have been a part of our discussion years and years and years ago. Can somebody explain that to me?

HON. KENDALL: It actually has been part of our discussion. I think this predates Secretary James’ return to the department. We have looked at budget issues to remove the dependency of the RD-180 but in the funding climate we’ve been in, for the last several years, it’s been unaffordable to the department. Now, when the Crimean events occurred that all changed and it became obvious that we could no longer accept the risk of the continued alliance of the RD-180. So I think we’re all in agreement now that we need to get off it as quickly as possible. Prior to that point in time we had consciously considered investing money to remove the RD-180 and develop a U.S. alternative but it had not made the budget cuts, frankly given the funding situation we had.

SEN. ERNST: Okay. Was that an issue of Congress, or was that a departmental decision?

HON. KENDALL: That was within the department.

SEN. ERNST: Okay. Should the air force have started a replacement engine program then long ago before it became so critical? Wasn’t that a discussion that should have come to congress?

HON. KENDALL: With hindsight we obviously should have. The expectation was that relationships with Russia were, after the end of the cold war, were going to be relatively benign. That has not turned out to be the case.

SEN. ERNST: Okay. And just so we don’t repeat this error in judgment and I think we need to look at many of our acquisition programs and the way we do business across the board, not just this particular propulsion system, but we need to take some lessons learned here and move forward. But who in DOD, if anyone, should have been responsible for conducting the long-term planning and architectural development for the national security space enterprise including launch? Is there one person? Who is that? How is that structured?

SEC. JAMES: Well I would say today, if there is a single person, it would be me. And I’m, in addition to being Secretary of the Air Force, is the Principle Defense Space Advisor, so that means my job is to, in a joint fashion, look not only at the Air Force, but look at the entirety of our budgets because of course there is Army space, there is some Navy space as well, to be able to work across the requirements community, and I don’t do all of this by myself, I don’t mean to suggest that, but to be a single point of contact who can then make independent advice to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary. But again, that’s a new development. If you’re going back in time, there probably were too many voices, and no single independent voice that could reach across and provide that advice.

SEN. ERNST: And are there communications now, then, between yourself and the other service branches?

SEC. JAMES: Yes, there are. I chair what’s called the Defense Space Council. I am Principle Advisor now to the Deputy and Secretary in terms of what we call the DMAG, which is where all of the important money discussions occur as we are building our POM and finalizing our budget and so on, so, there is additional authorities of late.

SEN ERNST: Okay, and can you describe that process then to me because I am not familiar with that, how you do interact with the other services, and is this something we need to be aware of, any types of these situations that might happen with funding any other branches as well?

SEC. JAMES: There certainly always crop up issues of policy and issues of funding across the Department of Defense. But my role now, as the Principle Defense Space Advisor, is to stay well-coordinated with the others, and even though at times I might be asked to go against my own Air Force budget, that is my job. That is my role to be able to rise above that and act in a joint way, and be that independent voice.

SEN. ERNST: Okay, well my time is running short, but I think communication is very key here, and when these things do crop up, it is important that we engage Congress as well. We can’t let this happen again. You’ve spoken many times over about the American taxpayer—they expect much better from us. We have to do better. So, lessons learned. We need to move forward at this point, and I think we need to develop our own technology as quickly as possible. But, I thank you both for your time. Thank you, Mr. Chair.