Thornberry Wants Air Force To Explain Why It Needs More Time To Replace RD-180

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Updated at 11:41 a.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee wants the U.S. Air Force to explain why an American-made rocket engine can not be ready by 2019 before he would consider lifting a ban on Russian-made engines.

Speaking to reporters March 16, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said lawmakers “would want to understand much more clearly why they don’t think that we can have an American engine” before a ban on using the Atlas 5’s RD-180 engine for national security launches takes effect in 2019.

Rep. Mac Thornberry
“Is this a question of dollars? Is it technology? Is it bureaucracy? What’s the issue here?” U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said, questioning attempts to lift the RD-180 ban. Credit: House Republican Conference

“Is this a question of dollars? Is it technology? Is it bureaucracy? What’s the issue here?” Thornberry said.

The House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee is set to examine the Air Force’s long-term launch options during a March 17 hearing. Among the witnesses scheduled to testify is Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance which makes the Atlas 5.

Bruno has said the ban Congress imposed last year on using the RD-180 once ULA’s current Air Force contract is up should be delayed until an American alternative is ready. ULA is working with Blue Origin on the BE-4, a liquid natural gas-fueled engine Bruno has said will not be ready to fly Air Force missions before 2021. SpaceX and Aerojet-Rocketdne have said they can meet a 2019 deadline for a new American-made engine, but Pentagon officials are skeptical.

“You’re looking at six years, maybe seven years to develop an engine and another year or two beyond that to integrate,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told a Senate subcommittee Feb. 25. “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.”

James will not be testifying at the March 17 hearing, but her assistant secretary for acquisition, William LaPlante, will be there. He is testifying on a panel of government witnesses that includes Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command.

The timeline the Air Force and the ULA have laid out puts lawmakers in a tough position. Thornberry said his committee would be dubious of furthering business with Russia. The RD-180 ban Congress included in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act is rooted in the escalating tensions between the United States and Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.

“I would say the anxieties about being dependent upon a Russian engine have only grown,” since last year, Thornberry said.

That apprehension has been apparent in public comments and letters from lawmakers.

On March 10, Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter saying the department has “not moved expeditiously to end the nation’s reliance on the RD-180 Russian rocket booster engines for national security launches.”

“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 letter read.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, told Bloomberg Government earlier this month that he opposes extending the deadline. “We don’t need more time,” he said. “This has been the problem with acquisition and procurement. It always turns into this 10- to 15-year process which actually never produces what we need.”

Thornberry, who took over as House Armed Services chairman after Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) retired last year, has made Pentagon acquisition reform the primary focus of his tenure. He said he expects to release details of a broad-reaching acquisition bill next week.