WASHINGTON, DC – Wednesday, February 10, 2016 – U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, today questioned Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and General Mark A. Welsh, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, on the use of the RD-180 for critical national security launches and the importance of assured access to space.
“I was pleased to once again hear Secretary James and General Welsh’s expertise on the needs of the United States Air Force,” said Senator Shelby. “It is clear that we all agree that the U.S. should reduce its dependence on Russia as soon as possible, but that it is far too dangerous to implement imprudent policies that impact national security before a reliable American alternative is available. I will continue to support the responsible approach in this important debate, which is to guarantee that we have assured access to space so that our men and women in uniform around the world are supported – not left blind on the battlefield because of misguided political decisions.”
Key points made in today’s hearing by Air Force Secretary James:
“We think having access to a total of about 18 RD-180s is reasonable and prudent to maintain competition over these next few years.”
“I worry that there would be a gap. I believe we need reasonable flexibility as we all work to get off of the Russian engine. I want to reaffirm, we’re very much interested and are working hard to get off that reliance on the Russian engine, but until we do, it is important that we have reasonable flexibility because of assured access to space.”
“It will be challenging. It’s a risky proposition to have it done by FY19, but it’s possible and that’s our objective. But, an engine alone is not a total capability, so even after we have a new engine developed, it has to be integrated with a rocket properly. It has to be tested and certified. So we project that it will be longer than FY19 before we have that total capability to power us into space.”
An unofficial transcript of today’s Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing is as follows:
ASSURED ACCESS TO SPACE
SENATOR SHELBY: I’m concerned that some of my Senate colleagues don’t fully appreciate assured access to space. General Welsh, could you explain this concept and why it is so important to maintain at least two reliable and qualified launch vehicles capable of service and Air Force requirements?
GENERAL WELSH: Senator, if I could, let me start with the operational perspective of why assured access is so critical, and then ask the boss to follow up with some of the details that she’s been leading the charge on in the Department on how we make that reality.
From a warfighter’s perspective, the idea of doing anything that we do on earth without the support we get from assets in space is a nonstarter. Everything from precision, to weapons, to navigation, to timing of operations, to controlled and encrypted communication – everything relies on assets that are now on orbit in space. And so, the ability to replace them when necessary, to augment them to supplement them is absolutely essential to the future of warfare for us. Boss, let me turn it over to you from there.
SECRETARY JAMES: To those of us who have studied it, assured access to space means that it is absolutely critical that we have at least two separate pathways, two separate ways to power us into space. If you’re reduced to a single way, that’s equivalent to putting all your eggs in one basket, and if something goes wrong, you can be shut down for months or even years. So for those who may think back to a period in the late 1990s, we had such a period of time where we lost billions of dollars’ worth of critical satellite assets – there were accidents and so forth – and we were literally shut down for a period of about 18 months where we could not get to space. So, we’ve said we must have two different pathways. It is the number one priority for those of us who are focused on space, and we’ve got to get this right because the stakes are high.
PROPOSAL TO BAN THE RD-180
SENATOR SHELBY: Secretary James, you touched on this briefly, but could you offer your opinion on the wisdom of the proposal that would eliminate the Air Force’s use of the RD-180 prior to having a reliable replacement that ensures our continued access. In other words, would there be a gap there?
SECRETARY JAMES: I worry that there would be a gap. I believe we need reasonable flexibility as we all work to get off of the Russian engine. I want to reaffirm, we’re very much interested and are working hard to get off that reliance on the Russian engine, but until we do, it is important that we have reasonable flexibility because of assured access to space.
SENATOR SHELBY: I think we all would accept the basic premise that we want to build our own engine. We shouldn’t rely on the Russians or anybody else. Is that correct?
SECRETARY JAMES: We want our own capability. I use the word capability vice engine because an engine is just a component of the capability.
DEVELPOMENT OF AN AMERICAN ROCKET ENGINE
SENATOR SHELBY: Give us an update, as much as you can, knowing that the building of a rocket, an engine of this magnitude is a difficult, very tedious thing. Where are we? You’ve mentioned the funding. This committee has funded more than the Administration asked for because the sooner, the better, but sometimes you can’t rush technology. But the sooner the better. Where are we, and how long will it be, in your judgement?
SECRETARY JAMES: What I have learned is that these are extremely difficult technical problems. As you say, it is not quite as easy as reverse engineering an existing engine. It really is hard science. The good news is that industry isn’t starting from a cold start. They had already been making developments, so what we want to do is leverage that development with some of our money – that’s what a public/private partnership is all about. Experts tell me that it is technically possible to get this done by FY19. That’s what we’re charging towards. That’s what the law has told us to do, and we are working toward that. It will be challenging. It’s a risky proposition to have it done by FY19, but it’s possible and that’s our objective. But, an engine alone is not a total capability, so even after we have a new engine developed, it has to be integrated with a rocket properly. It has to be tested and certified. So we project that it will be longer than FY19 before we have that total capability to power us into space.
SENATOR SHELBY: But without the Russian engine right now, there could be a gap in national security, in working with our Air Force?
SECRETARY JAMES: I worry about that, yes.
SENATOR SHELBY: Do you share that, General Welsh?
GENERAL WELSH: Yes, I think that the idea of assured access to space is one that everyone agrees with. It is important.