One of the former leading lights in Pentagon International Security Policy, Mira Ricardel, offered remarks this week that shine a bright light on an issue we cannot ignore. In a recent opinion piece in The Hill, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense noted that, “the Iran deal marks a new phase in the nuclear age,” namely “the advent of new nuclear states.” This former Defense Department official also discussed a comprehensive range of vitally important assets, solutions and platforms that would comprise a real and modern strategic defense program.
Her remarks are timely and important, particularly given the global security challenges our Nation faces currently. But there remains another critical area that US national policymakers must address if updated strategic defense is to ever become reality.
In addition to a strategic defense initiative, we also need a rocketry policy – essentially, preservation of launch capacity. At this moment, we have neither. What we have is a wish and prayer, the vague hope that we can maintain American launch capacity even as we cut off access to Russian rocket engines; the baseless hope that no one new will get intercontinental delivery capacity, especially not Iran.
The truth is this: If we allow Russia to now sell their unique intercontinental rocket engines, particularly the RD-180 engines we have long bought, to our adversaries – they will. The end result will be a double loss for America. It would strip us, as the US Air Force has started admitting, of our ability to assure no gap arises in launch capability between America’s current Atlas rockets, powered by these Russian engines, and a new American engine, likely in a decade. Congress needs to listen to these thinkers, policy and security experts who have warned on this issue before: We must reverse course now, and assure open access over the next decade to the Russian RD-180 engines, while also pressing for a robust budget to support development over the next ten years of an American alternative.
If we miss this boat, if we do not reverse the present sanctions placed on these Russian engines, we are playing directly into both Russia’s and Iran’s hand. We are ironically about to pay a high price for absence of a coherent national security rocketry policy. How many times do we need to hear this, and from how many Air Force, national security, homeland defense, and legal sources, before we wake-up and smell the coffee: If Congress does not assure access to this bilateral program (and to these Russian engines) for national security launch capacity, we are likely to find ourselves – in exactly four years – without reliable launch of critical assets, at just the moment when Iran is preparing break-out nuclear capacity and Russia is consolidating gains made by our utter lack of leadership now.
The rub is hard to miss: If we do not – if Congress does not – extend our access to the Russian rocket engines, dependent as we are on them and will be for the next decade, we will lose all ability to see what the world is doing, in a moment of greatest potential danger to the continental United States. Congress, specifically members of the United States Senate who have struck a different pose, need to get on the ball and reverse the throw-away sanctions on rocketry components that the United States buys from Russia – and will predictably need to have in the years ahead. If we do not see this need clearly, and meet it with legislation that preserves the relationship that has long been our source of heavy lift launch capacity for national security, we will live to fear what those in power have left us as a legacy.
So, as some ninety percent of trade continues with Russia, despite their expansive roles in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, at least this one element of our mutual trade relationship – the piece that links us together in space and assures our own security – should be continued. Congress needs to act soon, or the window of opportunity will close. Assistant Secretary Ricardel is right on – we absolutely do need a modern approach to strategic defense. But the launching of specific, essential missile defense assets into orbit, requires a reliable and capable heavy launch capability first. As we push forth to enhance our fundamental strategic security, let us not fall into a launch capability gap.