Russian rocket deal needs wing-walking approach

Russian rocket deal needs wing-walking approach
© Wikimedia Commons

For decades, U.S.-Russian cooperation in space has symbolized the ability of the two countries to collaborate, and served as a channel for constructive dialog, even during times of tension and crisis. Although some in Russia and the U.S. have argued for ending or altering this long-standing relationship, both countries should carefully weigh the value of maintaining cooperation in this mutually beneficial arena and how it should evolve moving forward.

The most contentious issue involves the relationship that was built over two decades ago around rocket engine technology. Specifically, a number of individuals in both the U.S. and Russia have called for an end to the procurement of the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine. 

The RD-180 partnership was born in the early 1990s, and has been maintained across four presidencies — two Republican and two Democratic — as an element of a broad policy of U.S.-Russian cooperation in space. Initially this policy was driven by the post-Cold War concern that idle Russian rocket designers would begin selling their expertise and technologies to third-world dictators eager to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. 

Many policy experts also credit these space cooperation initiatives with helping advance U.S. nonproliferation goals and developing valuable channels of communication with the post-Soviet Russia. The broader policy objectives of U.S.-Russian partnership in space have also been largely realized. The International Space Station (ISS) has been fully operational for years. It is by far the largest space structure ever assembled and is one of the most impressive engineering accomplishments in human history. 

The relationship between the United States and Russia has evolved since the creation of the relationship on RD-180 engines. Russia has made it difficult for U.S. policy makers to argue that space cooperation with Russia benefits the U.S. any longer. It is tempting, in light of this perceived failure, to completely end U.S.-Russian space cooperation, but it may be more beneficial for the U.S. to evolve its own capabilities to increase independence and use such capabilities to alter the U.S.-Russia relationship to identify and increase the opportunities for true mutual benefit.

As in the case of the U.S.-Russian relationship in maintaining and operating the ISS, the private-sector relationship surrounding rocket engines must also change. NASA has rightly recognized that the United States must develop an independent means of gaining access to the station. This does not mean that we should abandon the ISS or civil space collaboration. 

Similarly, in the case of the RD-180, Congress and the Department of Defense have rightly recognized the need to develop a domestically produced source for rocket engines. As in the case of the ISS, this should not result in the immediate severing of the existing relationship surrounding RD-180 engines. The procurement and use of these engines continues to serve U.S. national security and broader policy objectives. The U.S. must develop its own replacement hydrocarbon engine, but this path requires the proverbial “wing walking” approach. We will still need to utilize RD-180 engines while we develop our own engines. 

While ongoing Russian behavior and actions could ultimately destroy any remaining basis for collaboration, it would be premature and shortsighted to end U.S.-Russian space cooperation that can continue to be mutually beneficial and a stabilizing force in the future. Moving forward, it is also important to make a clear distinction between collaboration, which is mutually beneficial, versus dependence and patronage, which are vastly different.

In addition to the foreign policy imperatives of developing a new engine, there is a need to maintain two fully certified launch vehicle families capable of reliably launching national security payloads. Without the development of a new engine, the U.S. runs a very high risk of being unable to maintain two independent launch vehicles, and runs a very real risk of replacing one perceived monopoly with another.

In the near term, the U.S. needs to continue to utilize RD-180 engines to provide assured access to space while concurrently developing a domestic replacement engine for use near the end of this decade. The best way ahead is a pragmatic path where the United States can utilize the RD-180 in the near term, while developing our own propulsion capabilities. Such an approach, with stable funding and political support, is what is needed at this moment if we are to truly put our national security and commercial interests first. 

Marquez is former director of space policy at the National Security Council for Presidents Obama and George W. Bush.