Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its continuing aggression in Ukraine has sparked two highly important actions — one by Russia and one attempt by a few U.S. senators — both of which are being thoroughly ignored by the media.
Neither deserves to be. The first, two weeks ago, was the announcement by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin that his nation would no longer sell RD-190 rocket engines to the U.S., which uses them to power Atlas V rockets to launch military satellites. The other was the introduction of a bill by Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) to bar the Pentagon from buying Russian military equipment.
That our military strategy and tactics are highly dependent on satellites is not new. For decades, satellites have served as a sometimes inadequate substitute for spies on the ground and reconnaissance aircraft such as the long-retired SR-71 Blackbird flying over the target of our snooping. It’s gone further to the point that we rely on satellites for not only recon and spying but also for communications, navigation, and even minute tasks such as guiding individual munitions. In short, without the satellite constellations above us around the world, our military is close to being deaf, dumb, and blind.
So launching military and intelligence payloads is crucial to national security. Because there isn’t a sufficient market for commercial launch services to keep a large company alive — and it’s been beyond a small company to launch big payloads — the Pentagon asked Lockheed and Boeing to form a consortium which they call United Launch Alliance. It is responsible to keep the “Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle” alive and evolving and the Pentagon has given it a lot of business over the past two decades. (I was a consultant to ULA in 2011 but have had no connection to the company since.)
ULA became dependent on the Russians for the RD-180 engines to power the Atlas V when no American company could be found to produce them at a tolerable price. Pratt & Whitney, according to Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, has a license to produce the RD-180s, but it would take it or any other company at least five years and $1 billion to be able to produce the engines.
According to the Air Force, ULA has about a two-year supply of the engines. Which leaves a three-year gap (which may be able to be filled with the more expensive ULA Delta IV rocket) in parts of our launch capability caused by the Russians.
There are other companies — such as PayPal billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX — that are trying to qualify for major national security payload launches, but that’s a tough road. Them silver bullets are expensive, Tonto: a large spy satellite, with a highly-classified suite of sensors, routinely costs over $1 billion to build. A few years ago then-USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he didn’t want to put one of the “crown jewels” atop an unproved rocket.
The choices we have now are to increase the price paid for the launch (which is already in the hundreds of millions of dollars), rush the qualification of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, or any other companies that might be able to launch the heavier birds, or go without launching satellites until a new source of RD-180s is established. Going three years without replacing old or damaged satellites with new capabilities isn’t something we should even consider. We have to maintain the ability to put these payloads — large and small — into orbit (the precisely right orbit) whenever we need to.
We can’t blame the Russians for this mess. We can only blame ourselves for making the country vulnerable to this sort of pressure. We’d do it to them if we could. Sen. Coats is trying to do something like it.
Coats’s bill, the Russian Arms Embargo of 2014, would prohibit our government from spending any U.S. tax dollars on any contracts with the Russian government-controlled arms dealer Rosoboronexport. It would not only end current contracts but would also, according to a Fox News report, prohibit Defense Department contracts with any domestic or foreign company that cooperates with Rosoboronexport to design, manufacture, or sell military equipment.
At issue was a contract with Rosboronexport for Mi-17 transport helicopters to be delivered to the Afghan army. Most have already been bought, for almost $550 million, but the rest of that contract has been terminated by the Pentagon.
There’s an overarching policy conclusion that is compelled by the Russian rocket embargo and the need to even consider an embargo of purchases from a Russian arms dealer.
It should be a policy truism that we wouldn’t purchase — far less become dependent upon — critical military equipment from anyone outside the U.S. (I’d probably include Canada, but it doesn’t have the technology to do anything really interesting.) Becoming dependent on even a sometime-adversary such as France should be beyond the pale. It will be expensive to build our own rocket engines, as it is for us to build nuclear submarines, satellites, and combat aircraft, but we have to have the ability to do so here and not in any place that could be subject to foreign control.
This concept used to be spoken about in terms of the “defense industrial base,” the set of facilities, people, and capabilities to produce what is essential for U.S. national security within the U.S. and thus not subject to actions such as the Russians’ on the RD-180 rocket engines. That concept is no longer discussed in polite company. It’s been reduced to congressional braggadocio about jobs created or saved in some state or district. It needs to be more than that. It needs to be a definitive part of Pentagon planning and budgeting to ensure that critical assets can be researched, developed, and produced within the United States.
Military systems and subsystems which aren’t critical — such as transport helicopters and even some types of small aircraft, electronics, and boats — could be bought from real allies, of which we have very few. Buying anything from obvious adversaries such as Russia and China — not to mention avowed enemies — shouldn’t be done for any reason. It’s a sad commentary that laws like what the Coates bill could produce would even necessary. But they are.