Part of our superiority is from above, way above – in space. We can see things, monitor them – with detail via satellites that orbit the Earth. It’s become a central part of our ability to make decisions. But, we’re losing that capacity. It’s happening right in front of us, and everyone is cheering. SpaceX and the outsourcing of our missiles, more notably engines, into space might have dire national security consequences. Access to space and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) capability is critical. Uncle Sam can afford it – so, what’s the problem? Unfortunately, innovative business people understand much but do not necessarily appreciate the severity of national security and the fragile state of the world. In light to recent SpaceX disastrous failure, this topic is as relevant as ever.
Here’s a brief overview on the RD-180 debacle, a lesser known national security dilemma and the battle for access to space – that is contingent on Russia.
Atlas V heavy-launch rockets use Russian-made RD-180 engines. Senator John McCain wrote language in NDAA 2015 banning the procurement of RD-180 engines from Russia due to escalations in Crimea and the involvement of several sanctioned Russian oligarchs, namely Dmitry Rogozin, in connection with RD-180 developer company Energomash.
Then, national security experts joined with USAF personnel requesting the ban be lifted for continued access to space. An American-made alternative to the RD-180 engine does not exist. Senator Richard Shelby used the NDAA 2016 to lift the ban on the RD-180 engines last December. But, the issue stayed at the forefront of the NDAA 2017 debate until a tenuous compromise: USAF may purchase up to 18 engines until 2022 (when some estimates suspect alternatives to be available).
Some believe the agreement does not suffice. Some maintain Congress should lift any ban on the number of engines and change the date until 2025 – a possibly more realistic timeframe.
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. Mr. Mosteiro had this to say about the RD-180 situation in a written statement:
“The truth is hard to hear but Congress must listen: Without an engine, a rocket is a giant, multi-ton, multi-million dollar paperweight, and that paperweight will not lift critical ISR assets off the ground. Satellites, such as those used to detect and monitor the activities of opaque aggressor states like North Korea and early warning of ballistic missile launches, are a fundamental part of our national security infrastructure. Dependence on the RD-180 as the sole reliable way available now for getting our eyes into space and keeping them sharp is the reason for longer term thinking, but also for preserving this option. North Korean concerns merely highlight the importance of keeping all doors open, and not closing off corridors we may later need to navigate. Congress must not limit our access to a launch capacity that protects us all, particularly since global threats continue to rise and surprise.”
There’s concern that SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, has influence over McCain’s decision on the matter. I’ve compiled a few links that cover it. Please, take with a grain of salt and understand everything that gets done in Washington requires some lobbying and influence in one way or another.
This is an interesting and important ongoing effort. This underscores, I think, the importance of what goes on here in Washington and how things can go awry if no one is listening.
Featured image courtesy of danspace77.com.