Relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate. The United States and the European Union responded to Moscow’s seizure of the Crimea and its efforts to destabilize Ukraine with sanctions that are estimated to cost Russia some $40 billion a year. The Russian Central Bank has hiked the interest rate on the ruble to a whopping 17 percent in a desperate attempt to halt its decline and a financial panic. The combination of sanctions and falling oil prices are almost certain to drive the Russian economy into recession if not a real depression.
Russia, in turn, has imposed its own sanctions on imports of Western foods and sought to move closer both militarily and economically to China. Moscow also has ratcheted up its military activities along its borders with NATO, South Korea and Japan. Russian TU-95 nuclear-capable bombers have conducted simulated attack missions against Guam, California, Alaska, Japan and the U.K. NATO and Japanese air defense aircraft have been scrambled over 400 times in 2014 in response to provocative actions by Russian aircraft.
As the crisis with Russia intensified, Congress took steps to end this country’s dependence on Russia for our military access to space. One of the two primary U.S. space launch vehicles, the Atlas V, uses a Russian engine, the RD-180, for its first stage. Kremlin officials have hinted that they might halt sales to the U.S. of the RD-180, crippling this country’s military and intelligence space programs. They could refuse also to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. The recently passed 2015 NDAA requires the Air Force to develop an indigenous replacement by 2019. The Air Force and the United Launch Alliance are scrambling to come up with an alternative, indigenously-developed and produced engine.
Now Orbital Sciences intends to compound the risk to U.S. access to space by contracting with the same Russian company, Energomash, which produces the RD-180 for an engine for its Antares launch vehicle. Back in October, the Antares experienced a catastrophic engine failure seconds after launch. The RD-181 is reported to be a close match for the old Antares engine but has greater reliability. With the ruble tanking, Orbital can probably get a really good deal on the RD-181s.
The same day that Orbital Sciences announced its decision to acquire Russian rocket motors the U.S. Congress sent to President Obama a bill that could substantially increase sanctions on that country. The new law will allow the Administration to put further pressure on the Russian oil and gas sector, the heart of the Russian economy. The law also permits the U.S. President to provide more than $100 million in military assistance to Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin has characterized U.S. foreign policy as seeking to hem Russia in and destabilize its government. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded to the announcement of the new sanctions thusly, “It is hardly a secret that the goal of the sanctions is to create social and economic conditions to carry out a change of power in Russia.” It is hardly surprising then that the Kremlin has responded by doubling down on its use of military maneuvers against the West in an effort to get it to back down.
It is inexplicable that Orbital Sciences would choose this moment to select a Russian engine for its Antares launch system. What makes Orbital think that Congress will go along with its use of Russian engines, at least when national payloads are involved, when it has drawn a red line on the use of the RD-180 on the Atlas V? But even if Orbital is given a pass by the U.S. government, why would the company choose to take such a risk. How can it count on a stable supply of RD-181s? Isn’t it more likely that as U.S./EU/NATO relations with Russia continue to deteriorate, Moscow will retaliate against the sanctions regime by seeking to undermine U.S. access to space?
The only solution is for the U.S. government to bite the bullet and make the necessary investments in a domestic rocket engine industrial base and launch capability independent of Russian technology. The U.S. had better start soon; there are war clouds gathering on the horizon.
Find Archived Articles: