- - Monday, September 30, 2019

Americans largely consider our homeland safe from the threat of foreign attack. But this secure feeling is a relatively recent development. 

Everyone over 30 has lived a portion of their life a victim of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. I grew up with frequent “duck and cover” drills in school where we dived under our desks in practice for a potential atomic bomb attack. Russia deployed the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7, in 1959.

The subsequent nuclear arms race inflicted constant stress on the people of the Western world and those behind the Iron Curtain. My 24-year Air Force career focused on deterring the USSR from annihilating my country. 

The United States and its allies ultimately won that four-decade world war when they outspent and outlasted the Soviets with vast numbers of nuclear warheads and missiles. The hammer and sickle flag over the Soviet Union was retired permanently on Christmas Day, 1991. Since then, Russia has been relegated to nuisance-nation status throughout most of the world. 

The average American today doesn’t lose much sleep over Russia. Many believe that America’s Cold War adversary wouldn’t dare challenge them. And even if they did, Americans assume their military would be able to protect them. However, a new study from Princeton University reveals just how tragically misguided that assessment is. 

Tensions between the two nations are increasing as both are squaring off yet again over nuclear proliferation. According to Princeton, Russia remains a dire threat to America. Over the past two years, the study concludes, a nuclear war between the United States and Russia has become “dramatically” more plausible. If escalated to the point of no return, a nuclear conflict would absolutely devastate the United States. Within the first few hours alone, the study estimates 34 million people would perish. 

Since Russia has become increasingly volatile as of late, America must rethink its strategy. On Sept. 17, 2019, Russia joined with China to conduct large-scale military exercises. This is a move experts believe is meant to convey the nation’s growing military influence as well as an anti-Western, anti-American sentiment. The question is: What can the United States do about it? 

First, America must not underestimate the threat. Russia maintains the largest nuclear stockpile in the world and is no longer the fragmented entity it was following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained that Russia has closely studied American military strategy and is in the process of developing the technology and tactics to counteract our nation’s inherent military advantages. 

Russia is advancing in the capability to target and destroy U.S. satellites in space — and it’s unlikely they’ll stop there. Russia is seeking every opportunity to capitalize on America’s military weaknesses. It stands to reason, then, that the United States should be looking to plug each hole before it can be exploited. One huge strategic deficiency is our reliance on Russia for an essential national security tool: Rockets. 

Currently, the United States is wholly dependent on Russian rocket engines to transport cargo and conduct critical national security-related missions to and from space. Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine remains the U.S. Air Force’s pre-eminent propulsion system — a reality that leaves our country extremely vulnerable.

By continuing to use the RD-180 engine without any viable domestic alternatives, America is essentially acquiescing control of its space program to Vladimir Putin. Given the growing tension between the two nations, this dependency cannot be allowed to continue. 

Fortunately, the Trump administration is moving forward with a plan to solve this crisis. The National Security Space Launch program, or NSSL, is an initiative established specifically to eliminate our nation’s dependence on Russia’s rockets. Under the program, the Air Force is scheduled to contract two domestic launch providers to create reliable alternatives to the RD-180. If the program continues on schedule, the United States will phase out the RD-180 rocket engine by 2022 and seamlessly integrate its domestic replacement.

However, as is always the case in Washington, partisan politics threatens to take its toll on America’s national security interests. Some members of the House of Representatives have threatened to derail the NSSL program by saddling it with unnecessary modifications and new requirements that will delay the program. The Pentagon has stood fast in opposition to changes to the NSSL, knowing that any delays from Congress could be catastrophic for national security. 

The United States must end its reliance on RD-180 rockets and any other national security instruments manufactured by its adversary. Likewise, the United States must analyze other vulnerabilities within its armed forces and prevent Russia’s exploitation of them. Failure to view Russia as the United States’ greatest national security threat risks America’s pre-eminence on the world stage, or worse, its very survival.  

• Terry Thompson, a freelance author and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, was a war planner at the Pentagon and wing commander at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. He has a blog, Terry Thompson on America, at www.terrythompson.org.

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