Beware Iran and ICBM Rocket Engines

Robert Bunn
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Posted: Aug 25, 2016 12:01 AM
Beware Iran and ICBM Rocket Engines

As the US Congress struggles to bring another wobbly appropriations year to close, the furthest thing from most minds is likely Iran.  Instead, adds to that mega-bill are likely to include bite-sized favors and odd treats tied to the election and domestic politics.  But beyond the fray, rails rumble.  More specifically, missile launches rumble – especially in Iran and North Korea.  And Congress has a chance to address these issues, in a way not immediately obvious, but important. 

Over the past several months, Congress has teeter-tottered on the issue of locking down all of Russia’s RD-180 heavy-lift rocket engines – read: rare, ICBM- capable, special rocket engines.  The debate is driven in part by local politics as well as Senator McCain’s interest in other heavy lift replacement options, which have yet to fly even once within the last five years. Two questions arise in the debate. One, when will America get its own heavy-lift engine capable of adequately replacing the RD-180? Two, why would we give-up a highly reliable rocket engine that has worked for more than two decades before the promised “new” engine is flown, certified, and proven reliable?  Today, I suggest these questions be set aside.  A more serious one looms.

If Congress does not reverse course and assure that America can buy these RD-180 ICBM-capable rocket engines from Russia – unlimited by time or number – a dark curtain may fall across much of the globe.  More accurately, Iran, North Korea or China – may become the next buyer in line.  That would be more than unfortunate or politically unwise; it would be a formula for disaster, the opening of a Pandora’s Box that Congress should never have opened.  The answer, obviously, is to restore the status quo ante, and make clear that we will maintain our monopoly buy of these engines, for at least as long as we do not have our own, do not have a missile shield, and Russia is still making them (at about a half dozen a year).  Anything else is – literally – indefensible. 

Why?  Put aside for a moment North Korea’s appetite for buying this asset, pairing it with belligerent bombast, and then launching something on one of these.  Let us instead focus solely on Iran.  Two studies in the past year have made clear that Iran wants this kind of technology, and that if America does not lock it up – with Russia’s help – they are angling for it.  One study was conducted by the Hudson Institute, and was authored by a “Who’s Who” of national security leaders; the other was authored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  Neither of these institutions is running for Congress. 

What did these studies say?  In part, they both said:  Beware the caustic mess that would result from allowing Iran’s evil ambitions to mix with heavy-lift launch capacity.  More succinctly:  Beware Iran and ICBM-launch capacity, of the kind that the RD-180 engines constitute. 

More precisely still, CSIS argued that Iran’s aims are only part of the problem.  Mass proliferation of Iranian missile technology across the Middle East would produce “an unprecedented terrorism potential,” and that if Iran is allowed to develop (or purchase) complex long range missile technology … “the gap will be difficult to close.”  While poor guidance systems continue to dog Iran’s missile systems, buying a good one – that America put on the market by demurring – would be a terrible turn.

Finally, one other thing is clear, based on Hudson’s study:  Iran’s recent and continuing missile tests reveal the intent to gain intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability, and this represents blunt defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolutions.  Easier still would be buying the launch capacity, if the US does not want to hold it from the market; threats to launch and launches themselves would likely not be far behind. 

So, as Congress again and predictably angles for reelection, naturally favoring old friends and stuffing odds and ends into the pending Omnibus and/or Continuing Resolution bills, they might pause to consider that ephemeral, often evanescent, oddly ubiquitous and yet utterly critical issue of – national security.  If we are to hold Iran and North Korea from the secular Holy Grail of heavy-lift missile launch, the best add would be the simplest: Assure America keeps unrestricted access to RD-180 rocket engines made by Russia, for the sake of global stability and most importantly, American security.