Today’s ballistic missile threats won't wait on tomorrow's solutions

When Congress, in July, passed the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” members of both Houses showed too-long-absent unity and supported the idea of penalizing Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Who could be against such common sense, non-war, straight-talk policy? Turns out, thankfully, almost no one. But Congress did come within a tick of the clock of risking our national security.

Only at the eleventh hour did the Senate pass an amendment to allowing the Defense Department, NASA and the commercial sector to retain access to a unique Russian rocket engine, the RD-180.

The bipartisan amendment preserved America’s near and mid-term “heavy lift” launch capacity. The RD-180 is our only proven, present and practical heavy-lift engine. Absent heavy-lift capacity, our intelligence satellites cannot be put into proper orbit to observe threats, inform policy and military leaders, allow us time to prepare proper responses, and protect the homeland.

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What we know as of today is this: The number of threats — conventional ballistic and God-forbid, nuclear — around the world is growing. North Korea and Iran are bellicose and not getting any friendlier, except perhaps to each other and those who wish us ill. Two recent and especially alarming reports underscore the danger both countries pose.

 

The first involves missile technologies, maybe even rocket engines themselves, reportedly moving from Ukraine to North Korea. If true, this may at least partially account for the rapid advances in range and reliability witnessed in North Korean ballistic missile tests. The second is the recent movement within the Iranian government to increase spending on their ballistic missile program. Our defensive ability to respond or preempt depends on ballistic missile defense, including intelligence and advanced warning. But the technology supporting our intelligence and advanced warning depends on satellites, often very heavy ones, which we launch on Atlas V rockets, each powered by the RD-180 engine. 

So, you see that last-minute amendment, allowing limited but continuing US access to RD-18 engines — was a life saver, literally. The worrisome part is three-fold. For the foreseeable future, attempts to acquire a much desired, reliable American heavy-lift rocket engine will be slow in coming; the only currently available substitute is more expensive and less reliable; and Congress has given us a band-aid — not assurance that we will be able to maintain today’s capability until tomorrow’s solution is reality. 

If history is any indicator, the development, proving and certification process will take time, likely years. Politics cannot accelerate what physics insists on slowing. The first test of a leading alternative to the RD-180 was scheduled for 2013, but it still has not happened, though it is presently set for November. All parties involved realize the necessity of producing a viable U.S. alternative to the RD-180 — tomorrow’s solution. We will have it — in time — but not today. In the meantime, we can be thankful that Congress gave us a little of time we need to get it right and did not sacrifice the strategic heavy-lift ability we have already.

The only other American alternative to the Atlas V with RD-180 engine, an unrivaled combination with a superior track record, is the Delta IV heavy, which is only able to launch at certain prescribed intervals and with a cost of nearly half a billion dollars.

Pressed for dollars, in a perpetual debate over unnecessary costs, Congress is unlikely to embrace — except facing an existential threat — the use of Delta IV rockets for missions that Atlas V rockets routinely perform. Which returns the discussion to the future, and what Congress should be thinking about now.

Americans want cost savings, love the idea of buying American, and enthusiastically cheer on those who seek to advance science and technology. But when push comes to shove, we want to be safe and want our children, towns, and futures to be safe. Yes, we want tomorrow’s solution, but only a piece of legislation that permanently lifts all restrictions on future purchases and use of RD-180 engines will give us a today that ensures that safe future. That should be the next order of business when it comes to securing America. Congress should think wisely about today as well as tomorrow.

John Cody Mosbey is a retired Air Force colonel and current university instructor. He is a former executive director of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security of the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a researcher and writer on Russian geopolitics and holds graduate degrees from the University of Alabama in Birmingham and Trinity College, Dublin in addition to a graduate degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.


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