Congress, National Security and Rockets – Continuing Battle
Winston Churchill, famous for laconic turns of phrase, once observed that “Victory is not final, defeat is not fatal …it is the courage to continue that counts.” Most of us take inspiration from the notion that courage does count. But the first two points are also important, never more so than when dealing with legislation – legislative victories and defeats. To be specific, Congress has recently “compromised” on the battlefield of rocket engines, but the war may not be over.
A quick review of vital facts. Earlier this month, Senators Nelson, Shelby and McCain drew to a truce on the question of whether America should have unbroken and unlimited access to RD-180 Russian rocket engines. Without these engines, experts believe that America’s near to mid-term heavy-lift rocket launch capacity will be put at high risk, severely limited, at worst case wholly amputated. In that camp are military and intelligence officials, outside evaluators, engineers and political observers.
Others – led by Senator McCain – suggest that self-limiting the number of these unique Russian engines will prompt development of a reliable alternative by a certain date, will gratifyingly punish Russia in a meaningful way, and will spur young American companies to new heights. While these three assumptions may prove correct, partially correct, or dead wrong, the Senator has been outspokenly behind them. He has conducted blistering hearings, appearing to excoriate the US Air Force and others for not seeing things his way. And in the end, in this peculiar battlespace of 2016, he has seemed to produce a compromise.
Rather than keeping the door open to unlimited access (in numbers purchased and time permitted) for American use these unique Russian assets – the “rare earth element” of heavy-lift space launch – Senator McCain has, for now at least, managed to prevail over both Senators Nelson and Shelby, officially placing strict numeric and time limits on America’s access to the RD-180 rocket engines – the engines used to lift many of our most precious assets into space. Whether this is good for America is an open – and still pressing – question, but America now only has access to 18 of these engines, access that ends in 2022.
If America can accelerate the laws of physics and decelerate the laws of political bureaucracy, supersizing the year-after-year federal commitment to competing options for heavy-lift rocket engine development, while magically ending the often stifling delays tied to testing, we will possibly be in a better place. But if we fail to do any of these things, or there is reason to believe we may, the political war can be expected to resume.
Indeed already, credible experts in the fields of applied physics, engineering, intelligence, military planning and federal program management are likely wondering just how this magic compromise will work. When would experts know enough to say that reliable RD-180 engine alternatives cannot be built within this artificial deadline? When would they know enough to say that more engines are critical, and more launches needed? Would they still be able to have access to more RD-180 engines? When would America need to commit to those RD-180 engines, and at that moment, would they still be unsold to some foreign government? If not, who would be held accountable, especially if Senator McCain was no longer in Congress? Who would bear responsibility for such a catastrophic error? The answers to these questions are unclear.
As usual, some elements in Congress have agreed to re-make the world to fit its peculiar notion that reality, in the end, will conform to Congressional perspective. Often it does not. Neither applied physics nor federal bureaucracy; neither military and intelligence requirements nor the natural flow of engine development give way to mere congressional desires.
And that is where the rub is. America needs to focus more on long-term solutions and batting down what works in favor of what might or might not. America does not need to focus merely on political reelections and satisfying spleen venting. Spleen venting and pinning wishes on unproven options will not launch critical assets after 2022. Planning that will ensure continuing success is smarter than trusting in alternate and less probable realities.
In the short and simple: In Congress as in life, victory is not final, defeat is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts. Churchill had the inner wisdom to assume in his formulation that he had to address reality as he found it, not assume away threats and circumstances that he found untidy or politically inconvenient. What is the downside of having access to a few too many RD-180 engines and too much time in which to use them compared against having too few essential engines and being out of assets, time, and good ideas before we have an available and proven replacement? What Congress should do is lift the cap on access to these rare engines, not clamp the cover down on American security by limiting them – arbitrarily to only 18 engines and 2022. That would be real courage and genuine wisdom, in a stroke of the pen.