Why Is Bush Sacrificing The US Space Launch Industry To Promote Those Of Foreign Competition?

(Washington, D.C.): The Center for Security Policy today called on Congress to block the Bush Administration’s decision to allow U.S. satellites to be placed in orbit aboard Soviet launch vehicles pending thorough hearings into the national security and commercial implications of this action. The Center believes that such hearings would show this venture — which envisions using Soviet Zenit boosters, a-yet-to-be constructed Australian facility at Cape York and American know-how and payloads — to undercut U.S. national space policy, as well as defense and business interests.

"President Bush has, in effect, made the promotion of a Soviet commercial space launch capability a higher priority than the creation of a viable domestic capability," said Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., the Center’s director. "In so doing, he threatens to undo the progress made in the past few years toward reestablishing a robust U.S. capacity to place payloads into orbit."

In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, it became transparently obvious that the United States could ill-afford to depend virtually entirely upon so fragile a system as the space shuttle for its access to space. This was a condition for which NASA bore principal responsibility insofar as it was determined to dominate the launch industry with the shuttle program and, consequently, sought to curtail all commercial ventures by controlling U.S. production of expendable boosters. Naturally, when it at last came time to reestablish "hot" production lines for such launchers, the government wanted private industry — not NASA — to provide commercial launch services while preserving the shuttle for unique government payloads.

Several American concerns responded to the challenge. In particular, McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics and Martin Marietta resumed production of three powerful launch vehicles — the Delta, Atlas and Titan rockets, respectively — recreating an array of options for launching vital national security satellites into space and establishing an active competition for both domestic and civilian payloads. The result is the promise of a potentially significant contribution to the U.S. balance of trade and continued predominance in the aerospace field.

Unfortunately, these benefits are seriously jeopardized by President Bush’s decision to allow Soviet boosters to launch U.S. commercial payloads. As with his earlier approval of a Chinese proposal to loft three commercial satellites built by Hughes Aircraft, the President’s endorsement of the Cape York deal ensures that non-market systems — whose command economies permit them to set prices for goods and services at any level they choose, no matter how artificially low — can engage in unfair "dumping" practices for commercial satellite launches.

Gaffney noted, "While the Bush Administration avers that the Soviets will be obliged to charge fair and reasonable prices for their launch services, this is, at best, wishful thinking; at worst, it is a canard. Just as the Chinese are in the process of welshing on similar commitments concerning their new booster, dubbed the Long March, there is every reason to believe that Moscow will ‘buy in’ to the commercial launch business with its Zenit boosters."

The Center for Security Policy believes that the net effect of the Cape York venture thus will be three-fold:

  • First, a key sector of the Soviet military industrial base will benefit from Western hard currency and management and technology infusions. After all, the Soviet strategic rocket forces are responsible for space launch operations. The result will almost certainly be to enhance the USSR’s military space program; it is not unreasonable to expect, moreover, that Moscow’s closely related ballistic missile program will benefit as well.

  • Unfortunately, the flow of such sensitive Western information will not be limited to that involving the design and operation of modern space launch systems. Inevitably, it will also entail data about the satellites themselves. For, even if — as has been promised — no Soviet personnel are present at the Australian launch site itself, successful integration of payloads and boosters requires an intimate understanding of the characteristics of the device to be orbited (for example, in addition to its weight and dimensions, its power requirements, center of gravity, stress tolerances, etc.). While key manufacturing technologies might be protected, it would be foolish to believe that this arrangement will not give rise to significant compromises in a number of areas of satellite technology in which the United States currently predominates.


  • Second, the prospect of such technology losses will increase still further should the United States and other Western nations begin to permit payloads to be launched from the Soviet Union, itself. Today, the Cape York project is a gleam in the eye of a private Australian developer. It is hundreds of millions of dollars and several years away from supporting any space launches. Inevitably, the pressure will build to take a short-cut — namely, to allow the USSR to follow the Chinese model of providing cosmetic "safeguards" against technology theft (for example, having a man stand guard over the spacecraft twenty-four hours a day) while permitting the integration and launch of advanced satellites to occur from the launching nation’s territory. Let there be no mistake about it: This is a formula for the wholesale compromise of sensitive, militarily relevant technologies.

  • Finally, U.S. launcher manufacturers — who do not receive direct government subsidies and who are obliged to do business in the market place — are woefully disadvantaged in competing with official Soviet and Chinese agencies that face no such constraints. Under these circumstances, American private launcher vendors are virtually certain to lose out to state-run competitors; in due course, the inevitable result will be serious attrition in the U.S. industrial base. This, in turn, translates into the unnecessary loss of American jobs and export earnings.


While continued defense orders may prevent the United States from slipping all the way back to the pre-Challenger situation, should the American expendable launcher industry become sized and configured to meet the needs of the government’s space program, would-be commercial customers will find themselves — as a practical matter — facing an inelastic U.S. launch supply situation similar to that which existed at the time of the Challenger tragedy. What is more, given the anticipated cutbacks in the defense budget, matters may get worse still.

The key question the Congress must now address is: What is in the Cape York deal for the United States? If, as the Center believes, the answer is nothing — with the dubious exception of short run savings to certain American satellite manufacturers who are willing to risk their future competitiveness by allowing foreign access to sensitive and proprietary information in order to obtain short-run savings on launch costs — then this venture is contrary to U.S. vital interests. If the plan is specifically designed to provide economic assistance to the Soviets through the hard currency windfall it is expected to generate, then the Bush Administration should make that fact a matter of public record.

Unless and until the Bush Administration can demonstrate that opening the U.S. commercial satellite market to Soviet launch services will not jeopardize a vital national capability — our own industrial base in this critical area — and does not pose a significant risk of ill-advised, and possibly dangerous, technology transfers, Congress should preclude American participation in the Cape York venture and similar deals with Moscow.

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