May 27, 2014

IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME: Reliance on Russian rockets has left us in a pickle. “The U.S. government is being forced to use satellite launchers developed without government financing because the usual methods of obtaining these launchers is falling apart and currently is unable to supply enough rockets to get all American military satellites into orbit. The immediate cause of this problem is the recent (since earlier this year) Russian aggression against Ukraine. The U.S. responded to this aggression by placing sanctions on some Russian officials and firms. Russia responded to that by halting RD-180 shipments to the United States. That’s breach of contract and it will do enormous damage to Russian exports in the future because now many countries and firms realize that a contract with a Russian firm can be cancelled by the Russian government for any reason. This was always seen as a risk when doing business with Russia and many Western firms declined to do so or have pulled out of Russia in the last decade because of the growing unreliability of Russia as a business partner.”

Having been peripherally involved in the decision to use Russian rockets — which was first seriously looked at during the George H.W. Bush administration — here are a couple of thoughts. First, one reason was to keep ex-Soviet rocket engineers employed in Russia, so that they wouldn’t wind up working for third-world missile programs just to avoid starvation. That succeeded, mostly. The second is that while the transition is rocky, forcing the U.S. government to use satellite launchers “developed without government financing” isn’t a bug, but a feature.