The Pentagon’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the high-stakes competition to win lucrative contracts for national security rocket launches after an executive at the United Launch Alliance made controversial comments about the procurements earlier this month.
The investigation would seek to determine whether the contracts for the launches were “awarded in accordance with” federal regulations, Randolph R. Stone, the deputy inspector general for policy and oversight, wrote in a letter to top Pentagon officials Tuesday.
Last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called on the IG to investigate after a ULA official told an audience that the Defense Department had “bent over backwards to lean the field to our advantage” in the launch competitions.
Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive, said the comments “were not aligned with the direction of the company, my views, nor the views I expect from ULA leaders.” And Brett Tobey, ULA’s vice president of engineering, resigned the day his comments were reported.
ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has been a repeated target of John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. ULA’s Atlas V rocket uses an engine made in Russia, and McCain has said the United States should not have to rely on the Russians to get national security payloads — such as communications and intelligence satellites — to space at a time of heightened tension between the two nations.
For years, ULA was awarded the contracts on a sole-source basis. But recently Elon Musk’s SpaceX was certified to compete for the missions, creating a new competitive environment.