“An iron curtain has descended across Europe.” With these memorable words Winston Churchill announced the onset of the Cold War. Within a couple of years massed armies were arrayed along the line borders that divided the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from the Soviet Union and its puppet states. This was closely followed by the initiation of a nuclear arms race. Much of the conflict between East and West was fought in other parts of the world, in a series of proxy wars, the last of which was between Soviet forces in Afghanistan and the U.S. backed Mujahidin. Trade between the two camps was restricted and the transfer of goods with military potential to the Soviet Union was banned.
The strategic environment in Europe today is eerily similar to that of the early days of the Cold War. In response to Moscow’s aggression in Crimea and its fomenting of a separatist uprising in Eastern Ukraine, the United States and the European Union impose sanctions on Russia. Last week these sanctions were renewed for another year. The Kremlin reacted by banning imports of agricultural products from most of the West. Responding to Russia’s movement of tens of thousands of ground forces along its Western borders, NATO stood up a new rapid deployment force, a central element of which is a U.S heavy brigade combat team, whose equipment will be pre-positioned on the territory of Eastern European members of NATO. Russian fighter aircraft have repeatedly “buzzed” NATO aircraft in international airspace and Russian strategic bombers have repeatedly conducted simulated strike missions against NATO countries, including the U.S homeland. The U.S. and its NATO allies are taking a series of measures to prevent a “Crimea style” attack by Russia on one of its member countries, particularly a Baltic state.
Russia has been aggressively rattling its nuclear saber, touting its strategic and theater nuclear modernization programs and its ability to attack NATO with nuclear weapons. In addition, the U.S. government publicly accused Moscow of violating the 1987 Treaty banning the production and deployment of so-called intermediate range nuclear forces by developing and testing a long-range ground-launched cruise missile. In written testimony for the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called for “a comprehensive strategy of diplomatic, economic, and military responses” to Russia’s violations. He went on to lay out a series of U.S. response options should Moscow fail to return to a treaty compliant state that included “active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles; counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and countervailing strike capabilities . . .”
Unlike the late 1940s when the Cold War started, today the West has all kinds of economic ties with Russia. Central and Western Europe get much of their natural gas from Russia. Estonia, a NATO member, is actually tied into the Russian electric power grid. The United States is dependent on a Russian rocket engine, the RD-180, to power the Atlas V launch system which is absolutely critical to lofting national security payloads into space. Moscow could cut off the supply of rocket engines at any moment.
Recognizing the enormous strategic vulnerability this creates, Congress decreed that the responsible U.S. agency, the Air Force, must cease relying on the RD-180 by 2019 and develop a U.S. built alternative. To this end, Congress appropriated funds to begin the competitive procurement of a domestic alternative.
The Air Force and the entity currently responsible for providing launch services for the military and intelligence community, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), are resisting Congress’ instance that it terminate use of the RD-180 by 2019. ULA wants to continue using Russian engines until it can design, develop and test an entirely new launch system sometime in the late 2020s. The Secretary of the Air Force claims that it will take nine years to develop and test an RD-180 replacement. Several of the private companies competing to build the replacement engine have insisted that they can do it by 2019.
Given the increasingly hostile relationship between Washington and Moscow, does it make any sense for this country to be dependent on Russian rocket engines for a minute longer than is absolutely necessary? Moreover, buying additional RD-180s means that the U.S. government is helping to subsidize that portion of the Russian military-industrial complex supporting Moscow’s strategic nuclear modernization efforts, including its violations of the INF Treaty. Shouldn’t those resources be devoted to developing a U.S. alternative to the RD-180?
It makes no sense for the United States to reauthorize economic sanctions on Russia while simultaneously sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Moscow for additional rocket engines. At what point in a steadily deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West does this process amount to trading with the enemy?
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