Somehow, Congress continues to flirt with tragic error, as if this flirtation – like some of its others – is inconsequential. Specifically, the US Congress continues to limit America’s ability to purchase Russian rocket engines, specifically the RD-180, which are effectively used by the USAF with American Atlas V rockets to launch key heavy assets into space. Those assets protect us, and that marriage of engine to rocket is long-established, reliable and has kept the peace. But the bigger problem is what may happen to these engines, if America is not the indefinite buyer. Here is an idea, and clarion warning. We ignore it at our peril.
According to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), entitled “Iran’s Strategic and Missile Forces and Strategic Options,” Iran has an interest in developing this kind of ICBM launch capacity. While their nuclear ambitions remain opaque, at least according to some, not so their missile and heavy-lift launch ambitions. Iran is feverishly seeking near-, mid- and long-range launch capacities. Make no mistake: If Iran ever gets long range missiles, American cities will be part of their target planning.
Which brings us back to the RD-180 debate, and Congress’ mystifying, twisted way of thinking about policy. Instead of locking down all the Russian RD-180 engines, assuring agreement to indefinite purchases by the USAF as long as America may wish to have these assets, Congress has put number and time limits on American access to these launch assets. Never mind that our own country needs these for heavy-lift launches of key satellites. Why would our own Congress green light Russia’s ability to sell these to Iran? And how much faster for Iran if they could, as they have shorter-range missile technology, buy what they wanted “off the shelf” from Russia – because America let them?
The threat is real and growing. The CSIS study is a clear harbinger. The authors, while circumspect, offer a sober assessment: “While the lethality of [Iran’s] most current systems is limited by a reliance on conventional warheads, poor accuracy, and uncertain reliability; Iran is developing steadily improved guidance systems, attempting to improve the lethality of its conventional warheads, and has at least studied arming its missiles with nuclear warheads.” Obviously, America would be one intended destination for those warheads, if they could ever get an ICBM rocket engine to deliver them.
Drilling down, CSIS makes no bones about stakes: “Iran gains strategic leverage from developmental programs that could someday enable it to launch missiles that can strike the US, as well as all of Europe and Russia,” adding that Iran is “developing boosters for what it claims are space purposes …that create the potential to deploy a future ICBM.” How convenient then, if America gave up the RD-180 engines, and Russia – strapped for cash – sold them to Iran? That appears to be what some in Congress think constitutes “acceptable risk.” Many Americans are likely to disagree.
Finally, the report argues for greater focus: “Iran is making a major effort to deploy more accurate missiles, and there are important indicators that it is developing nuclear warheads and seeking to give its systems penetration aids to counter missile defenses.” Accordingly, as if we needed to be reminded, “No state can disregard the fact that Iran might escalate to the use of such systems because of a conventional war in the Gulf, in reaction to any military threat to its ruling regime, as a response to covert action against the state, or as a method of resolving domestic fissures.”
And there we have it, perhaps the single strongest argument for Congress putting aside political, parochial and fund-raising efforts to focus tightly on national security. No matter how fast America can build a heavy lift rocket engine, and no matter the piddling foreign exchange Russia may gain from indefinitely selling these rare RD-180 engines to the US for our own purposes, one thing Americans of every stripe and persuasion should agree upon is: We do not want to leave these rare, RD-180 ICBM-capable, heavy-lift Russian rocket engines “on the shelf,” to be blithely picked off that shelf by Iran, as Russia searches for a new buyer.
Congress needs to see the wisdom in unlimited RD-180 rocket engine purchases, since these engines are few and not only help us but keep others from using them, in particular Iran. If we do bring these rocket engines here on our terms, we may one day find them here on someone else’s. By definition, that would be tragic.
Steven L. Mosteiro is a former strategic planner, policy analyst and missile defense expert with the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force.