Russia’s incursion into the Crimea started a domino effect of reevaluation of America’s myriad ties with its Cold War adversary. At the political level, sanctions and diplomatic pressure from NATO members continue around the clock. Then there are the day-to-day realities of what the unraveling of trust in a longtime partner can mean.
In one critical but usually overlooked corner of the national security realm, attention is focusing on how intertwined Russia is with the U.S. space program. American astronauts need Russian rides to get to the International Space Station, for example.
What has caught the wary eye of lawmakers and Defense Department officials is the use of Russian rocket engines to power America’s heavy rockets, which frequently carry secret, and expensive, military and intelligence payloads.
The wisdom of this reliance is now in question, particularly if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to throw a spanner in the relationship between his nation’s rocket scientists and the U.S. government. While the U.S. has approximately a two-year supply of Russian RD-180 engines for its Atlas V rockets, it also has viable alternatives that would support the U.S. aerospace industrial base and encourage further innovation in the space-launch sector.
A recent op-ed in Roll Call by Mark Albrecht, a former member of the White House National Space Council, and Don Kerr, who was the principle deputy director of National Intelligence and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, added to the voices calling for America to dump its rocket-engine supply relationship with Russia and produce a home-made alternative. “We must revitalize America’s space infrastructure, and the right place to start is with an advanced-hydrocarbon-fueled booster engine — an engine critical to U.S. leadership in rocket propulsion for access to space,” they wrote. Read the Roll Call op-ed.
Expect similar rallying calls in the coming months.
While this is a sound alternative to the Russian RD-180 engines, the question of how much time it would take to produce an alternative has to be carefully considered. Reliable and assured launch access is a key military advantage, given the vulnerability of U.S. government satellites to damage or degradation, intentional or otherwise.
One of the fastest ways to pursue an alternative approach to putting sensitive payloads in orbit is through accelerating competition within the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program, a mainstay launch program for U.S. spy satellites. Military officials are working on it already, but the current crisis offers a clear reason to move much faster.
Alternatives for the U.S. government exist today in the commercial launch market.
Engineering and development for new U.S.-made rocket engine designs is essential, as Albrecht and Kerr point out. What is just as important is acting quickly.
Russia’s Putin has already shown how fast strategic relationships can shift in the 21st Century. For a critical national security area like military space launch, the U.S. needs to be even more nimble.