This article, originally published at 10:49 a.m. EDT on March 17, 2016, has been updated to reflect the Inspector General investigation.
WASHINGTON — At the request of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the Pentagon's Inspector General has opened an investigation into controversial statements by a top United Launch Alliance executive accusing Sen. John McCain of working with their competition to ban the use of a Russian rocket engine for military space launch.
"At the request of the Secretary of Defense, the OIG DoD has opened an investigation regarding assertions made by United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) former Vice-President of Engineering relating to competition for national security space launch and whether contracts to ULA were awarded in accordance with DoD and Federal regulations," according to a March 22 DoD IG memo to the Air Force secretary. "This investigation will include, but is not limited to, site visits, interviews, and documentation review with DoD and ULA personnel."
ULA Engineering Vice President Brett Tobey resigned last week after reports emerged that he had accused the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman of teaming up with SpaceX founder Elon Musk to ban the RD-180 rocket engine, which powers ULA’s Atlas V launch vehicles. SpaceX is ULA's main competition for Pentagon business, as the company's Falcon 9 rocket won certification last year to compete for military space launches.
“This guy right here, John McCain, who basically doesn’t like us; he’s like this with Elon Musk,” Tobey said during a March 15 presentation at the University of Colorado-Boulder, according to audio posted by Space News. “So Elon Musk says, 'Why don’t you guys go, why don’t you go after United Launch Alliance and see if you can get that engine to be outlawed?' ”
ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and the Pentagon are working together to figure out a way to “silence McCain,” Tobey suggested in his remarks. The company, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is even considering completely transitioning from Atlas V to the much more expensive Delta IV for satellite launch.
“The problem is that carries a $1 billion or $2 billion budget, and is it worth that billion or two dollars of taxpayer money just to silence John McCain, who’s the squeaky wheel in all this?” Tobey said. “It really is a one-man band out there that’s driving forward. Everyone wants to get off of the RD-180 engine, but they want to do it in a more logical and organized way that basically doesn’t put those national assets at risk.”
Carter is "concerned" about the statements, and last week referred the matter to the Pentagon Inspector General for "appropriate action," according to Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook.
"The Department strives to ensure all contracts are awarded in a fair and impartial manner based strictly on the terms of the solicitation and source selection criteria," Cook said in a March 18 email. "The Secretary is concerned by recent statements regarding competition for national security space launch and, consistent with the recommendation of Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, and Deborah James, Secretary of the Air Force, has referred the matter to the DoD Inspector General for appropriate action."
ULA CEO Tory Bruno denounced Tobey’s “ill-advised” comments on Twitter on March 16 and in a March 17 statement to Defense News. ULA welcomes competition, he said.
“The views, positions and inaccurate statements Mr. Tobey presented at his recent speaking engagement were not aligned with the direction of the company, my views, nor the views I expect from ULA leaders,” Bruno said, according to the statement. “Mr. Tobey resigned his position at ULA effective immediately.”
The IG involvement comes after the Arizona Republican called on the Pentagon to investigate Tobey’s “disturbing statements” during a March 17 SASC appearance by Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. McCain's request is the latest salvo in his political battle to wean the US off of the Russian rocket engines supplied by ULA.
"These statements raised troubling questions about the nature of the relationship between the Department of Defense and ULA," McCain said. "This committee treats with the utmost seriousness any implication that the department showed favoritism to a major defense contractor or that efforts have been made to silence members of Congress. Mr. Secretary, I expect that you will make a full investigation into these statements and take action wherever appropriate."
McCain has been seeking a ban on using the RD-180 for military space launch after 2019 in response to recent Russian aggression in eastern Europe and the Middle East. However, Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican and a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, spearheaded legislative language in the fiscal 2016 omnibus bill that allowed ULA to keep buying RD-180s from Moscow until a domestic alternative is available.
The Russian engines, part of a US Air Force contract, have powered dozens of ULA's satellite launches of military hardware during the past decade, and ULA has held a monopoly on the launches for years.