home national security, non-proliferation, sanctions, terrorism, U.S. Politics, United States, Venezuela, Western Hemisphere Proposed Russian-Cuba-Venezuela Space Cooperation Raises Many Questions

Proposed Russian-Cuba-Venezuela Space Cooperation Raises Many Questions

“If the [INKSA] waiver is to be granted, and it appears that it must be in order to ensure safety, redundancy, and continuity, it should include some sort of escape clause for early termination; and it should not be granted until NASA promises that the space shuttle program will not be scrapped…”

The Russians appear to be enjoying lately publicly challenging the United States and Europe on the world scene.  Through the very calibrated use of diplomatic and military power, the Russians have done such things as “claimed” chunks of the Arctic or trained troops with the Venezuelan and Cuban militaries. Russia’s boldest maneuver, to date, was the invasion of Georgia, a young democracy. Russia has also become the leading arms supplier to state sponsor of terror Iran and it has opened weapons factories in developing nations such as Venezuela.  Russia experts and oberservers can now add one more matter their list: a proposal for a Cuba-Venezuela-Russia outer space program.

One wonders how the folks at NASA reacted to the news when the chief of the Russian space agency announced recently that “preliminary discussions about the possibility of creating a space center in Cuba” were ongoing?  “With our Cuban colleagues, we discussed the possibilities of joint use of space equipment … and the joint use of space communications systems,” added the Russian space agency chief.  At this juncture, it is not clear how serious Russia happens to be about the proposal.  However, it is certain to add more political fuel to the ongoing discussions on the Hill, some have said heated arguments, about the premature retirement of the shuttle program or how much the U.S. can trust our Russian space partners with U.S. space technology and know-how.

The end of the space shuttle program has resulted in the unfortunate over-reliance on Russia to get U.S. astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for at least five or more years.   Until the Constellation Program is ready to go with new space launch vehicles, Russia’s Soyuz may be our only “shuttle” servive to the ISS.  NASA officials have been lobbying Congress to secure support for purchasing additional Russian Soyuz spacecraft in order to service the station until Ares and Orion are ready for service.  Relying too much on the Russians for the ISS program was a bad idea at the onset.  Science cooperation aside, the Russians are proving to be a bad political investment for which U.S. taxpayers will have to pay with their tax dollars while potentially putting at risk U.S. national security.

The proposed Russia outer space cooperation program with Cuba and Venezuela further reinforces the argument that trusting certain foreign powers with U.S. technology should be done selectively and closely monitored.  The U.S. space program is a technological and information gold mine with both civilian and military applications.  And while Russia and the U.S. has penned many agreements on restricting the use of information acquired as part of this cooperation, no agreement is one hundred percent iron clad.  That is why laws such as the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act  (INKSA) are critical.  Most Americans have never heard of it, but INKSA is at the heart of one of many discissions about the ISS and our work with the Russians.

INKSA is part of a comprehensive set of economic sanctions used to deter foreign countries from sending sensitive technologies to state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran. It is rooted in an older law, the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000.  The prohibited transfers include technologies that could be used for weapons of mass destruction or advanced conventional weapons such as missiles.  There is an INKSA provision that prohibits U.S. taxpayer payments to Russia for space programs work, for example the Soyuz program, if Russia has been determined by the U.S. Government to be transferring sensitive technologies to Iran, North Korea, or Syria.  NASA says that it needs an extended exemption from INKSA, which is like saying, in essence, that we will do nothing if Russia is found to be giving or transferring dual-use or other sensitive technologies to the Iranians or Syria. 

The U.S. already has proliferation concerns vis-a-vis the Russians and Iran.  The Cuba/Venezuela matter, if the Russians go through with it, is only going to complicate the overall analysis as to whether Russia is cooperating to ensure that U.S. technologies do not end up in the wrong hands.  Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuban Communist Party leaders who control the island under one-party rule maintain close relations with the Iranian regime and support Iran’s nuclear weapons’ ambitions.  There is also a role for Venezuela in this matter.  Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is also a supporter of the mullahs and their quest for nuclear weapon.  Placing proliferation concerns aside, how can we assure that other senstive U.S. technologies will not end up in the hands of these and other countries?  We cannot.

There is no easy answer to this problem.  U.S. taxpayers have invested billions of dollars in the ISS program and its completion is necessary to pursue more ambitious efforts in outer space.  Without a doubt, this taxpayer believes we ned to  invest much more in our space exploration and science programs; however, today we are in the unfortunate situtation of having to make untenable choices between several national imperatives including space exploration and national security.  Americans like to lead, not follow.  This situtation may basically give the Russians de facto control of the ISS.  They stole several of our military vehicles in Georgia.  Whose to say they will not pilfer U.S. technology and know-how and transfer it to Cuba, Venezuela, or even Brazil?  The latter has a growing commercial and military propulsion program.

Granting the proposed INKSA to NASA would allow it to assure a money flow to use the Soyuz program until at least 2015; however, there is no guarantee that the Russians will agree to cooperate until that time. The Russians could point to a whole host of issues to stop cooperating with the ISS including the missile defense program in Poland and Czech Republic, the follow-on activity by NATO, Europe, and the U.S. in Georgia, blocking its efforts to claim chunks of the Arctic, efforts in the Middle East, and even our response to its recent announcement of a proposed Cuba-Venezuela-Russia space cooperation program. 

In reality, there is very little the U.S. can do at this point to stop the dissemination of our technology.  If the Russians feel compelled to give it away, the Russians have already had a great deal of access to the ISS for many years.  This does not mean that we turn our backs and resign ourselves to a Russian transport service for the next few years without taking steps to ensure that U.S. technology is safe.  The next Administration should also work harder than ever to ensure that the U.S. never has to depend on a foreign power, Russia or otherwise, to reach the heavens or have us play any sort of technological defense in this too important a field to the future of our country.

With regards to NASA’s proposed INKSA waiver, the existing law allows NASA to make payments to Russia until 2011; however, the Russians have said they need new contracts signed in the very near future in order to ensure delivery for future launches beyond that date.  If the waiver is to be granted, and it appears that it must be in order to ensure safety, redundancy, and continuity, it should include some sort of escape clause for early termination; and it should not be granted until NASA promises that the space shuttle program will not be scrapped. If we need to turn to the private sector with tax incentives to keep the shuttle program a viable, so be it.  Such a waiver should also include provisions that it will be null and void if Russia is found to be transferring any sensitive technologies to any state sponsors of terrorism and those countries that support them.

%d bloggers like this: