Lawmakers grill Clapper over U.S.-Russia space arrangement

The Air Force has been in a bit of a quandary when it comes to sending satellites into space. While the United States is engaged in a war of words with Russia – Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley even going as far to call Russia the number one threat to the United States – it still relies on Russian rocket engines to carry equipment into space. 

The United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, provides space transportation for the Air Force, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office aboard three launch vehicles, the Atlas V, Delta II and Delta IV. The Atlas, one of ULA’s primary rockets, uses the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which is something Congress has sought to stop. Meanwhile, potential competition for launches has arrived with SpaceX, headed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, which the Air Force certified last year to vie for future contracts.

Lawmakers including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday questioned the Director of National Intelligence on the unusual relationship with Russia when it comes to space. “I’m a customer, Chairman McCain, of the launch industry in the United States. My interest is in seeing to it that our overhead reconnaissance constellation is replenished and replenished on time,” DNI James Clapper said.

He acknowledged the potential for Delta rockets, which don’t use the RD-180, as well as SpaceX as alternatives. “I certainly do agree on fundamental American tenets of competition. That’s why I’m quite encouraged by the aggressive approach that SpaceX has taken. And our plan is to certify SpaceX for carrying a national security payloads into space.”

Clapper added that he would rather not be dependent on the RD-180s – the Russian-made rockets – as a citizen and his interest is getting these payloads into space.

McCain also brought up the national security implications of the U.S.-Russia space arrangement, raising the issue that the company that sells Russian rocket engines, Energomash, is “rife with people who are cronies of Vladimir Putin” as well as people that have been sanctioned in relation to criminal activity. Wouldn’t it be better, he asked, to buy more Deltas than to give tens of millions of dollars to Putin and his cronies?

Clapper agreed, saying he would much prefer that “the totality of the system that gets those satellites into orbit were American.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) questioned the director if he would be concerned of the possibility of a capability gap that would prohibit payload delivery to space either due to production time for the Delta IV or cost factors. “Well I certainly would be,” Clapper said. “When we’ve had to manage gaps not so much from – because of launch – but simply because of a capabilities in space, that is a great concern to us and the Intelligence Community. So yes, I would be very concerned about gaps.”

He also told the panel that he has imperatives for assured space access for overhead reconnaissance purposes. “This is an extremely crucial capability for the nation’s safety and security. And so I look to the providers of those who get those things into space, which for me is the Air Force, to decide that. … [T]he Delta has worked great for us – we’ve felt it was responsive, it was cost effective and it worked for us,” he said. 

ULA has recently expanded its partnership with Orbital ATK to reduce costs. The Air Force has also awarded contracts to both Orbital ATK and SpaceX to develop rocket engines for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program as part of the plan to eliminate reliance on the Russian engine.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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