January 28, 2016 – Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall, on military space launch and the use of Russian-made rocket engines January 27.
During her testimony, James highlighted space capabilities’ role in national security, the importance of modernization and the need for end-to-end space launch services.
“The U.S. relies upon space as an essential element of our national security,” James said in her opening statement. “Space provides us with the ability to operate effectively around the world, to understand what our own forces are doing and to stay ahead of our adversaries. Space is key to projecting credible and effective power around the world to support our allies and deter aggression.”
Maintaining the advantage requires the ability to modernize and replenish space architecture through a reliable launch capability, which remains the Air Force’s number one space priority, James continued.
Assured access to space requires end-to-end space launch services and not just a rocket engine, James said in her written testimony.
“The Department would strongly prefer not to fund a rocket engine alone because an engine alone will not get us to space,” James said. “We need an entire capability, not just one single component. We need to expand on our horizon and keep focusing on the launch capability in its totality of which the engine is a key component, but it’s not the only component.”
The Air Force has been operating in space for decades and remains dedicated to maintaining its advantage. Exploring types of rocket propulsion systems in a competitive way could lead to having new competitors and new capabilities for space access.
“There are fantastic developments in the commercial world,” James said. “We are following them, we are celebrating them, and we are putting some of our resources, time and energy toward trying to get them there because we will all benefit from it.”
Until recently, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance (ULA) was the only certified launch provider. ULA’s Atlas V rocket has had a 100% success rate launching national security payloads that provide critical support for weather forecasting, mapping, military communications, intelligence and surveillance, but ULA has been under increased pressure by Congress to discontinue usage of the Russian-built RD-180 first-stage engine.
ULA is currently developing the Vulcan rocket, bringing together decades of experience on ULA’s Atlas and Delta vehicles, to produce an all-new, American-made rocket that will enable mission success from low Earth orbit all the way to Pluto. ULA has partnered with Blue Origin, LLC, a privately funded aerospace company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, to provide a cutting-edge engine for the Vulcan rocket while also providing a viable alternative to the Russian-made RD-180. The new technology will take time to develop though, and the new rocket is not expected to conduct its debut launch until 2019.
In the meantime, Congress and the military continue to debate government’s assured access to space, diminishing competition and the requirement for a minimum of two distinct launch vehicles. James has stressed that assured access to space must remain the nation’s top priority going forward, especially with increased threats and potential adversaries within the space arena.