Recent, repeated testimony by U.S. Air Force leadership, publicized interviews and public discussions in leading defense and commercial publications point to a growing, self-inflicted conundrum. Fortunately, Congress has a few months to stop this issue from severely affecting U.S. security interests in — and protected by — space.
The history of this problem, by all appearances, begins with congressional distress over Russian adventurism, particularly in Crimea and Ukraine. Reflecting what seemed, at the end of last year, sensible anger over resurgent Russian territorial ambitions, new sanctions were sought by both the Obama administration and Congress.
In principle and practice, this was viewed as a measured action.
However, as any astrophysicist will immediately recognize, Newton’s third law of motion states that “to every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” Similarly in the foreign policy realm, all geopolitical actions have geostrategic consequences — often at home and abroad.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2015, and subsequent congressional actions, essentially denied Russia of foreign currency expected from U.S. purchases of the Russian-designed and -built RD-180 rocket engine, while also mandating that a new U.S.-developed and produced engine be online and operational by 2019.
While both moves have noble origins, they have set off a chain reaction that now seems likely to blind America in space in the next decade. And, if not readdressed, both moves could significantly impact aspects of U.S. national security.
The RD-180 engine has, for over a decade, reliably, cost-effectively and safely carried the heaviest U.S. payloads into the highest orbits, primarily those payloads that support key strategic defense and intelligence priorities. Designed, manufactured and finally certified after years of testing in both Russia and the United States, this engine is how America launches the Atlas 5 rocket — and its record of performance is nearly flawless. These are incontrovertible facts, confirmed by leading literature, industry and other expert sources.
Of course, there is the possibility of an American-made engine becoming a new standard in a decade — but not before years of testing and development, years that will likely go beyond a 2019 deadline. Sure, there is the Delta 4, a vehicle that could, in a dire emergency, put heavy payloads into orbit — but only at astronomically expensive costs per launch. And yes, there are promising young launch alternatives that deserve attention and encouragement, despite recent losses of rockets and payloads. However, none of these options allows for continuance of the largely unimpeded, reliably routine and cost-effective access to space that we have maintained for over a decade.
In fact, now may prove one of the worst periods in recent memory to experience a shortfall in space access, simply given the nature of global instability at present and looming challenges over the next several years.
When dealing with everything from wider instability in the Middle East, to the nuclear and ballistic launch ambitions of Iran, to growing territorial tensions in the Far East, the potential loss of “eyes in the skies” in space, or the ability to upgrade, service or replace those eyes is — or should be — unthinkable.
To permit a gap in our ability to launch essential satellites into orbit would be significant — yet this gap could occur if newer, relatively untested launch systems fail to deliver, if new U.S.-produced technology isn’t ready for launch, and if current access to the RD-180 expires.
For almost a decade and a half, through various foreign policy rough spots — even during the Cold War — the United States and Russia have cooperated in space. We have done so for reasons that served both countries. As part of that process, our astronauts come and go to the International Space Station via Russian spacecraft.
Why must we risk a devastating gap in national security information, or take on a losing gamble with the physics and bureaucracy of engine development, or fret every night as the gap gets closer, when we already have the full rights to the engine that works — locked up? Do we really want to compromise our strategic national security for the tactical satisfaction of denying modest foreign currency to Russia?
The responsible answer — and it is now on Congress to find a legislative solution — is to prevent a gap in launch capability by ensuring U.S. access to proven technologies.
On behalf of all Americans, let’s certainly push forth to produce an American engine that rivals the RD-180, but let’s not lose reliable access to space in the process. In the long term, we can think more creatively about how to work the levers of strategic advantage with competitor nations. But for now, let’s legislatively correct the record, lock up the needed supply of RD-180 engines, and preserve what works for as long as we may need it — for U.S. national security in space remains a critical imperative.
Steven L. Mosteiro is a former strategic planner, policy analyst and missile defense expert with the U.S. Office of Secretary of Defense and the Office of Secretary of the Air Force.