Ernst questions U.S. dependency on Russian-made rocket engines

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) questioned witnesses at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week about U.S. dependency on Russian-made rocket engines for national security space launches.

The RD-180 engine is used as part of a launch system that provides space capabilities for military operations, including threat assessments, navigation, the strategic and tactical communities within the U.S.’s intelligence communities, and diplomatic engagements.

Ernst asked why the Department of Defense has failed until now to address the national security risk posed by the ability of Russia to withhold the RD-180 engines and why a replacement for the engine program was not already created.

“With hindsight we obviously should have,” Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall III said. “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.

“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.”

Ernst said that many of the nation’s acquisition programs needed to be looked into, including the propulsion system, as well as how the nation does business across the board.

“We can’t let this happen again,” Ernst said. “We have to do better…We need to move forward at this point, and I think we need to develop our own technology as quickly as possible.”

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