The Dangers of Russian Leverage in the Space Race

The space race, thought to have been won following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has re-emerged. This time, rather than simply returning to the moon, both the United States and Russia are seeking to cement their authority on the next battlefield, which is space.

Per a new Defense Intelligence Agency report, the Russians view space as “important to modern warfare and counterspace capabilities as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness.” Now, they are taking steps to secure such a foothold. In an effort outmatch America’s nascent aerospace capabilities, Russia is investing in weapons that could jeopardize the security of U.S. space satellites and assets.

America’s space flight systems are currently reliant upon the RD-180 rocket, a Russian-made engine. Our use of Russian aerospace technology poses a serious national security threat, principally because it forces the United States into a state of dependence. Without sufficient domestic launch capabilities, the United States cannot manage a wholly independent, secure and self-contained space operation. We are forced to cede a degree of control to Russia, our chief adversary and the nation from whom we purchase the very tools America needs to compete.

If they wanted, the Russians could hamstring the United States’ entire space launch strategy. In short, Russia has leverage over us, and that’s unacceptable. We cannot allow foreign countries the opportunity to influence our spacefaring operations. America must establish its own domestic spaceflight capabilities, eliminating the liability caused by our use of the RD-180 rocket.

Fortunately, America is moving in the right direction. Through an Air Force program known as the Launch Service Agreement, the United States will secure its space launch independence.

The agreement’s roots trace back to 2014. The United States had been dependent upon Russia propulsion engines for the better part of 20 years at that point. However, it wasn’t until President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea did America realize that its almost total reliance on the Russian aerospace technology, coupled with the country’s growing international belligerence, created serious risks.

As a result of the Crimean invasion, the U.S. Congress passed a mandate, ordering the Department of Defense to move America away from the Russian RD-180 rocket and toward an American-made alternative by 2022. The Launch Service Agreement program was initiated by the United States Air Force to facilitate that transition. By partnering with private companies, the Air Force seeks to foster American self-reliance within its space programs.

Now, in 2019, the Launch Service Agreement is in full swing. In early May, the Air Force initiated Phase 2 of the program, soliciting bids to award aerospace contractors the opportunity to construct capable, American space launch vehicles. Barring unscheduled delays, the Air Force is on track to replace the RD-180 with a viable domestic alternative by 2022.

Some are arguing that the Air Force should delay the program, claiming that the Air Force will still have enough time to meet the 2022 congressional deadline. However, given the severity of the Russia dependency problem, the Air Force should be doing everything it can to solidify the U.S.’s self-sufficiency earlier than 2022 – especially when considering how bureaucrats have had to extend the schedules of projects of similar complexity in the past. For these reasons, decision-makers should reject attempts to delay the Launch Service Agreement.

The time for American space dominance is now. Over the last few years, America’s relationship with Russia has become progressively more contentious. The growing threat of sanctions, claims of election meddling and increasing tensions have strained the two countries’ already-tenuous relationship. And as space becomes the next domain for asserting global power and influence, the United States cannot risk relinquishing the control of its national security to a foreign power.

Dr. Phil Kiver is a U.S. Army veteran with a doctorate in strategic studies from National American University.

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