The recent sanctions bill, penalizing Russia, Iran and North Korea for their various and sundry offenses, is now law. The sentiment behind using sanctions to pressure behavioral changes on the part of all three nations is laudable. Missed however is the potential for a misfire in the area of US-Russian space and security relations.
To date, America and Russia have maintained a two-track diplomatic process, with the Western world registering valid objections to Russian overreach and violations of rule of law through gradually increasing sanctions.
At the same time, Western nations – including the United States – share numerous security protocols, practices and regular trading habits with Russia. Russian and American trade last year was north of 20 billion dollars, ranging from agriculture to medicine, raw materials to high technology.
Moreover, the cultural ties are deeper than most imagine, with the United States and Russia representing two of the largest Christian countries in the world, per capita and in absolute terms.
The shared values range from mutual enjoyment of Russian orchestral works, like the Nutcracker and 1812 Overture, to shared accomplishment in the sciences, with both countries topping out in key Nobel prize categories.
Perhaps most remarkable, America and Russia share an early and continuing peaceful and security-focused interest in and accomplishment in space. We have grown to rely on each other, not only for historic breakthroughs and shared discoveries, but in gaining and maintaining access to space.
The US Space Shuttle was an international carrier, and in its absence, Russia has ferried US astronauts to and from the shared Space Station. Most urgently, for maintaining global and national security, the US and Russia have cooperated in the launch of US Atlas V rockets to deeper space with Russian RD-180 rocket engines.
Luckily, the US Congress has at least temporarily stopped flip-flopping on this issue. For the time being – through amendment to the recent sanctions bill – Congress carved out a critical exception that allows trade in these essential engines to continue.
That exception should become permanent. While there is every reason to keep researching, testing and perfecting an American-made rocket engine of similar reliability and cost, the reality is that cooperation with Russia in space – and in unbroken American purchase of these unique engines – should be made predictable, not a matter of continuing question.
Predictability in international security, trade relations and cooperation in space should be the standard, even if thoughtful exceptions exist to register strong objections to violations of international rule of law.
Bottom line is that gambling with American security, for the sake of domestic politics, is never defensible. The Atlas Vs, launched on RD-180s engines, represent not just the most reliable and soundest heavy lift option for the next decade. They are the only cost-effective option, as no new “heavy lift” capacity exists and frequent Delta IV launches, at upwards of $400 billion per, are objectively cost prohibitive. At last Congress seems to get it – international security and trade relations, especially with Russia, are inherently complex, not simple.
Robert Bunn is a former senior law enforcement attorney in FL and commentator on national issues, has special interests in rocketry, intelligence, international affairs and national security. He holds multiple degrees from Harvard University and is author of two books, one of which is The Panama Canal Treaty: Its Illegality and Consequential Impacts.