Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) on March 17 called on Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to initiate an investigation into statements made by a United Launch Alliance executive who said the Defense Department had “bent over backwards” to give ULA more of an advantage in the GPS-3 satellite competition.

Honeywell provides components used on ULA's Delta IV vehicle, which it plans to retire in 2018-2019. Photo: ULA.
Honeywell provides components used on ULA’s Delta IV vehicle, which it plans to retire in 2018-2019. Photo: ULA.

The executive, ULA Engineering Vice President Brett Tobey, also alleged Tuesday at the University of Colorado-Boulder that McCain acted on behalf of ULA competitor SpaceX in his repeated attempts to restrict the availability of Russian RD-180 engines, which are used in ULA’s Atlas V launch vehicle. Tobey resigned late Wednesday after Space News published audio of his comments.

“These statements raised troubling questions about the nature of the relationship between the Department of Defense and ULA,” McCain said Thursday morning during a SASC hearing where Carter testified. “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.”

Carter did not directly respond to McCain’s request for an investigation. However, he did say later in the hearing that he supports allowing the continued use of RD-180 engines until a domestic replacement can be certified.

“We have to have assured access to space. We have to have a way to launch our national security payloads into space,” he said. “The alternative, which I understand but we don’t recommend in this budget because it costs more, would be essentially to use the Delta [IV] as a replacement, which is more expensive than is required.”

The difference in cost is about a billion dollars more, he added.

Tory Bruno, President and CEO of ULA, a joint venture of Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT], took to Twitter to disavow Tobey‘s comments yesterday.

“These ill-advised statements do not reflect ULA’s views or our relationship with our valuable suppliers,” he wrote. “We welcome competition.”