For some time now, members of the US Congress – particularly Republican Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPelosi receives John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Romney: Trump 'has distanced himself from some of the best qualities of the human character' MSNBC host: Barr 'the most dangerous person' who works for Trump MORE (R-Ariz.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Shelby joined by Democrat Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonRepublicans amp up attacks on Tlaib's Holocaust comments The muscle for digital payment Rubio says hackers penetrated Florida elections systems MORE (D-Fla.) – have traded shots on the vulnerability of America’s national security planning.  Central to this dispute has been one, stinging and hotly contested question:  How do we preserve America’s critical heavy-launch capacity to assure that, for the next decade and beyond, key intelligence satellites (and other payloads) get to outer orbits?  This issue is now getting even hotter. 

The essential quarrel has turned on clear, unambiguous, but diametrically opposed views:  The assessment of Sens. Shelby and Nelson, as well as the US Air Force and other national security and space experts, is that America has in place an established, strong, safe and reliable mechanism for getting satellites to outer orbits. That proven method is an integrated solution, Russian-made RD-180 engines and America’s Atlas V rocket. 

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Opposing this method is the McCain view:  Limit America’s access to the RD-180 rocket engine, instead trusting that  an American heavy-lift rocket engine appearing over the next few years (despite physical, bureaucratic, safety, design, certification, deployment and reliability challenges).  This would also have the benefit of denying Russia the minimal revenue they get from the RD-180 engine sales.     

So, what is the case for unshackling McCain’s current limits on American RD-180 buys?  What is the case for the continuing American-Russian cooperation on heavy-lift to space?  For starters, the partnership in space – with RD-180s going exclusively to America from Russia – has worked well for more than two decades.  It has reliably put our assets in space, and simultaneously reinforced mutual awareness of strategic military movements, giving greater predictability and thus stability and security to both nations.  Second, it has prevented these rare engines – capable of powering weaponized ICBMs – from getting into the hands of rogue states.  Finally, there are no existing alternatives with equal reliability and capability.

Does this logic not sound compelling?  Do the facts not argue strongly for continued American purchases of every single RD-180 engine Russia makes (and they do not make many)?  One would think so.  This is a method that, in tandem with slowly developing and testing an American heavy-lift alternative for the out years, assures reliable heavy-lift American access to space, even if it also gives Russia a fraction of a percentage of its foreign currency exchange with America. 

Security experts, in and out of Government, have continued to tell Congress to remove existing limits (time and numbers) on American RD-180 purchases.  But now comes another voice and argument, nested in a Hudson Institute study, by renowned authors, entitled “Space and the Right to Self-Defense.”

This study makes an array of valid points.  Among them, these:  “The threat posed by direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles is especially grave… adversaries threaten that which gives the United States much of its military superiority,” namely situational awareness of terrestrial battlespaces, in part based on heavy-lift launch. 

The study also notes, without saying expressly that our present RD-180 and Atlas V integration lie at the foundation, that:  America’s “space systems allow joint forces to see the battlefield with clarity, navigate with accuracy, strike with precision, communicate with certainty, and operate with assurance.”

Finally, the study sounds a number of warnings, among them:  Rogue and uncooperative adversaries are hunting for ways to deny America space-based national security, including “weapons to target space assets…”  They specifically name China, which may be “putting nearly the full spectrum of our defense and intelligence satellites at risk.”  More ominously, the study notes that “North Korea and Iran have each launched satellites into orbit” and “the sanctuary status once assumed for U.S. space assets has been irredeemably lost, and, whether we wish it or not, powerfully demonstrates that the space domain is a battlefield.”

In this context, without extracting other observations from the new study, obvious questions are these:  Why would we punt away a working relationship and access to RD-180 engines that, in turn, have assured America’s ability to put key satellites into key orbits, giving both America and Russia a sense of security?  Why would we go “penny wise and pound foolish,” seeking to block minimal revenue to Russia, at the expense of our own security in space?

Of course Senator McCain is correct that the United States should pursue alternate heavy-lift capability with all haste.  Viable American alternatives to the RD-180 are, and should be, developed - as soon as possible.  The mistake would be to pursue the “Pure American Alternative” by cutting off our current capability and losing our hold on the RD-180 market.  We must maintain maximum capability while pursuing ending the reliance upon Russian rocket engines.  Wisdom, prudence, and National Security demand this course of action.

As the Hudson study laconically states: “Any credible deterrence strategy is dependent upon the United States making clear to our adversaries the high value the United States assigns to its space assets and that we possess the capability and willingness to defend those assets.”  Congress should remember that getting these vital assets into space, keeping rogue nations from bringing them down, and preserving America’s heavy-lift ability for all national security purposes – are all part of one issue.  And the sooner that some in Congress assure our security by unclipping our wings, the better.

Colonel John Mosbey is a university instructor and researcher in national security and military matters, currently completing a PhD in Russian geopolitical issues.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.