Michael Steele: U.S. sanctions on Russia look a lot different from space

446px-Michael_SteeleThe untreatable international agita over Russia’s meddling in Eastern Ukraine is taking on otherworldly overtones here in the United States, where the Putin regime’s hegemonic bullying of its next-door neighbor is reaping unforeseen cosmic repercussions in the heavens, in the halls of diplomatic and military power, and in the courts.

Leave aside, for moment, the general concept of punishing sanctions, which haven’t hit hard enough to convince the willful Russians not mess with Ukraine. Forget, too, the internationally accepted and expected notion that sovereign nations should be left to set their own destinies. Insistence by pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine on moving forward with an intentionally provocative “self determination” referendum, and subsequent declarations of “independence” by the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, seem to all but assure that a deeper and perhaps bloodier conflict will soon engulf part or all of Ukraine.

In just days, roughly one third of Ukraine’s territory could effectively become a Soviet-style satellite. The current, minimalistic sanctions regime the Western powers have put in place has done nothing to stop the Russian power grab that is controlling the separatist movement from the Kremlin.

But aside from the immediate geopolitical price to be paid for indecisive Western reaction, there are other consequences to leading from behind. Here in the United States, satellites of quite another variety are becoming a new, central focus of the Ukraine crisis — our spy satellites.

Arguments abound in political, industrial, military and legal circles about the folly of the US defense sector’s reliance on Russian industry and technology to heft the Intelligence Community’s eyes on the world into low Earth orbit. You read that correctly — US surveillance satellites cannot attain their perches in the heavens without the aid and acquiescence of the Russians.

At particular issue here is the astonishing US reliance on Russian rocket engines for a longstanding heavy space launch program overseen by the US Air Force. Launches conducted by that program, known commonly as EELV, short for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, have been sole-sourced to industrial behemoths Boeing and Lockheed Martin since the program’s inception in the mid-1990s.

In the years since the program’s founding, however, the relationship between those two rival firms and the US Government has grown quite cozy. Boeing and Lockheed Martin formed the consortium firm United Launch Alliance (ULA) in 2006, and since then, ULA has entrenched itself as the Air Force’s single source for heavy launches, most of which involve depositing “national security payloads,” or spy satellites, over troubled areas.

Other quite capable American firms have tried to enter this arena in recent years but have been rebuffed by any variety of unfair means.

ULA’s workhorse rocket is the Atlas V. The Atlas V is itself a fascinating historical artifact, designed by Lockheed Martin prior to the founding of ULA but after the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union was thought to be vanquished, and Russian-American industrial and economic cooperation hit new, previously unimaginable heights.

At its core, the Atlas V was once looked upon as a symbol of US-Russian goodwill and technical collaboration. Those were different times, indeed.

The first Atlas V lifted off in 2002, soaring into the skies under the power of the Russian-designed-and-built RD-180 rocket engine, which still powers this mainstay even today. No Atlas V leaves a launch pad without at least one RD-180 attached to it. The rocket simply isn’t designed to accommodate anything else.

This means exactly what you have just deduced – the US intelligence agencies that need ULA’s services, not to mention the other government entities that launch their own machinery into space, are at the mercy of the Russian Federation. By its own admission, ULA has only two years’ worth of RD-180s in its stockpiles. That’s it. Either ULA will have to buy a whole bunch of rocket engines from the Russians before sanctions for Russia’s Ukraine misadventure are expanded, (at outrageously inflated prices, one would think), or the EELV program grinds to a halt in short order.

While some US firms like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) have challenged ULA’s monopolistic hold on the EELV program, others are looking more specifically at the reliance on the RD-180 and don’t like what they see. One of these is Sen. John McCain, who has taken up the laboring oar to assure that competition in the launch market frees the United States from this bizarre and inexplicable dependency.

Current US sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea and for further agitation throughout Ukraine’s East single out select individuals close to the Kremlin’s power structure. One of these figures is the man that oversees the Russian aeronautics firm that manufactures the RD-180. A federal contracts court based in Washington just this last week found itself grappling with the notion that engine purchases from this company could violate the economic restrictions placed on that individual, Twitter-hound and gadfly, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.

Rogozin bit back on Tuesday, announcing that Russia would ban RD-180 use by the United States for its military launches. The situation thus morphed from the ridiculous to the absurd.

Meanwhile, the United States could, in theory, still be sending millions, perhaps billions of dollars into Russian defense sector coffers to keep its rockets in flight, even with a coming deeper freeze in bilateral relations. For reasons of national and economic security, not to mention the future of US space exploration, this cannot stand.

(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from TheGrio.com)

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