One of the great 21st Century ironies is that the global economy is critically dependent on space-based communications, monitoring and navigation yet decades ago the American public lost its awe for the Space Age feats that made the era such a powerful one.
Our GPS devices are expected to work as reliably as hot water from a faucet. It just works. The magical is now mundane. The same could be said for a lot of things in Washington, and America’s space programs are no different.
That disconnect from the difficulty and delicacy of space launch poses a strategic liability for the American military and erodes American competitiveness. A recent reminder of the stakes comes with Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine.
The Defense Department is dependent on Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines for its mainstay satellite-launching Atlas V rockets. Currently, Pentagon officials do not seem to be overly worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin severing that relationship. They should be. Underinvestment has a cost even if it is not being tallied up today.
As American Security Project Chief Executive Officer BGen Stephen Cheney USMC (Ret.) told Reuters: “Given the turmoil going on in Ukraine and Russia, it’s more important now than ever to reinvest in America’s own space infrastructure and programs.” See the Reuters story.
Were Russia to hit the brakes on this relationship, the U.S. would be in a frustrating bind with no home-built alternative. Manufacturing Russian-designed rocket engines in the U.S. would be a stretch in a crisis, and represents a feeble long-term bet.
The Pentagon, the aerospace industry and lawmakers have an opportunity to take on this issue. A lack of imagination of the scope of the problem, and its solutions, is no reason for further inaction.
As our adversaries are well aware, the U.S. military is counting on supremacy with its government and commercial space assets no matter where it operates. Our allies know the global economy is only going to become more reliant on space-based systems, particularly as more and more devices and technologies become interconnected in ways we have trouble imagining today. Moreover, America’s competitiveness in the 21st Century depends on this kind of aerospace engineering know-how, as well as the intellectual resiliency that comes with it. Supporting domestic design and production makes economic and strategic sense for America’s future.
Getting by as we are now will not cut it in the 2020s and 2030s. After all, Putin is in this third term as president. In 2018, he may very well run for a fourth.
Check out more in ASP’s White Paper on American Competitiveness: