By J. Michael Barrett International policy decisions that seemed reasonable in an earlier time can often look ill-advised as facts on the ground change and relations evolve. Or, more to the point, as those relations devolve into outright hostility, as is the case recently between the United States and Russia.
Why, then, at a time when the United States is squaring off with Vladimir Putin over his Ukraine power-grab and other international misdeeds, would our government continue to fund Putin’s corrupt regime with American taxpayer dollars by buying legacy Russian rocket engines known as RD-180s?
Fortunately, lawmakers will have an opportunity this month to correct this now stunningly outdated national-security mistake.
The United States has used Russian RD-180 engines to power our rockets — including the delivery of U.S. spy satellites into orbit — since 2000 for a number of reasons, with cost as a driving factor.
At the turn of the millennium, the United Launch Alliance — the Lockheed Martin/Boeing joint venture that supplies rockets to the Air Force, NASA, and the National Reconnaissance Office — determined it would cost less to purchase the Russian engines than develop its own. When the arrangement was first conceived there also was hope that such business dealings with Russia would ease relations between our countries, and make Putin less likely to sell to nations like Syria.
But things haven’t worked out that way. According to Michael V. Hayden, a four-star Air Force general and former head of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, “It’s clear now that relying on Russia for rocket engines was a policy based on hope, not good judgment.”
In reality, our arrangement with Russia is, in effect, putting taxpayer money in the pockets of corrupt Russian officials and their cronies. The engines, after all, are made by NP Energomash, a mostly government-owned operation.
As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently put it, Americans “are paying millions of dollars to companies that have done no work but merely served as a ‘pass-through’ to corrupt Russian businessmen connected with Vladimir Putin.”
More importantly, our reliance on Russian RD-180 engines has left us at a severe disadvantage as we attempt to check Russia’s military aggression. This became clear last year, after the United States imposed sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea. In response, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitri Rogozin threatened to ban all sales of RD-180 engines to the U.S. intended for launches with military connections, mocking our dependency on his nation for the launch of spy satellites.
That the Putin government has so much power over America’s national security operations is unacceptable.
Congress is, however, poised to end this dangerous — and embarrassing — business relationship. In December, lawmakers passed rules to ban future contracts for purchasing RD-180 engines. The legislation also barred Russian engines for use in U.S. national-security launches after 2019 and set aside $220 million to develop a replacement engine.
But ULA isn’t happy with these restrictions and has been using its influence in Congress to push back. Indeed, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., — whose district houses a major ULA factory — has introduced a bill rolling back the limits on Russian engines.
At the same time, ULA has decided to limit production of its American-made Delta IV launcher in an effort to strong arm the U.S. military into purchasing the RD-180 until at least 2020. This underhanded tactic might benefit ULA, but it’ll endanger U.S. security while enriching Russia.
ULA is able to execute such a ploy because of its long monopoly on rockets for national-security launches. America’s interests would be far better served if we leveraged our existing, homegrown alternatives and encouraged U.S. technology and engineering companies to re-join the global space race.
In recent weeks, though, there has been encouraging progress proving viable alternatives to the Russian engine exist, and from multiple American providers. The Air Force, for example, just certified California-based SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket for use in national-security launches. This rocket has proven itself as a reliable, cost-effective alternative to ULA’s Atlas V rocket, which is powered by Russian engines. NASA is already using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft to help end U.S. reliance on the Russians for access to the space station.
In certifying Falcon 9, the Air Force has officially brought competition back to national-security launches. But this is only a first step towards replacing the RD-180. It’s now up to Congress to follow through and commit to ending our well-intentioned but ultimately dangerous and self-inflicted Russian chokehold on our national security.
J. Michael Barrett is former director of strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council. He is a principal with Diligent Innovations.
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