The Obama Administration’s critics have long accused it of a penchant for sending mixed messages to friends and adversaries alike. There was the now-infamous Syrian red line, the promise that Iran would never be permitted to acquire a nuclear weapon and the vow that ISIS would be destroyed.
Possibly the quintessential mixed message is provided in the President’s proposed Fiscal Year 2017 Defense Budget. The budget provides $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), triple the amount in the FY16 budget. The additional funds will go for enhancing U.S. military capabilities in Europe, to include the rotational deployment of a heavy brigade combat team. At the behest of U.S. commanders in Europe, the Army also is upgunning its European-based Stryker brigade with a new, more lethal 30mm cannon. The ERI will support expanded training efforts and exercises with NATO allies, particularly the newer members in Eastern Europe, a broader U.S. naval presence in the Baltic and Black Seas, plans for increased prepositioned stocks of supplies and enhanced partnership activities with countries such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Observers have characterized these moves as a re-pivot to Europe by a U.S. military that had essentially withdrawn from the Continent.
All of these measures are directed at deterring an increasingly aggressive Russia. Russia’s invasion of Crimea and attempts to destabilize Ukraine marked the beginning of a campaign against Russia’s neighbors to the West, including NATO. The new Russian National Security Strategy for the first time explicitly calls out the United States and NATO as threats to Russia’s security and global stability. A few days ago, Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, characterized the relationship between his country and the United States as “a new Cold War.” There are increased signs that the Minsk Agreement to create a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine between the government in Kiev and Moscow-backed separatists is falling apart. As a result, U.S. and European sanctions on Russia are likely to continue and even intensify.
In stark contrast to the moves to enhance U.S. military capabilities in Europe, the Air Force is seeking permission to extend the time period during which it will be dependent on a Russian-built rocket engine, the RD-180, for critical national security space launch missions and to acquire additional engines to cover a projected gap before a domestic alternative is available. Last year, Congress banned additional purchases of the RD-180 and directed the Air Force to develop a domestic alternative by 2019. This year, following a persistent campaign by the Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Congress rescinded the ban and provided funds to allow the United Launch Alliance to purchase an additional 20 RD-180s.
Yes, the Air Force is moving to develop an alternative to the RD-180. But in comparison to how it is addressing the Russian threat to Europe, the Air Force is taking an almost lackadaisical attitude toward this critical national security vulnerability. The FY17 budget does provide more than $1 billion for development of domestic engine alternatives. But it also expands the focus of the effort from simply ridding the Air Force of its dependence on the RD-180 to developing an entirely new launch system. Developing and demonstrating a replacement engine by 2019 is a doable, albeit challenging, goal. Designing, developing and testing an entirely new launch system will unquestionably take years longer.
The urgency and decisiveness with which the U.S. is responding militarily to the growing Russian threat in Europe stands in sharp contrast to the way the Pentagon is handling its vulnerability to Russian rocket engines. In view of Russian activities in Europe and the Middle East, how is it possible for the Pentagon and Congress to deliberately extend the time period during which this nation is dependent on Russia for much of our space launch capability?
What a mixed message the Pentagon is sending. What is the Kremlin to think, except that the United States is not serious about opposing Russia’s aggressive moves? Moscow can turn off the RD-180 pipeline at any point, perhaps in response to continuation of U.S. economic sanctions. If, as Prime Minister Medvedev says, a new Cold War is in the offing, deploying a domestic alternative to the RD-180 should be among this administration’s highest priorities.
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