Rocket engines may seem esoteric, something for scientists, engineers and policy wonks to worry about. But they are more than that: They are a near term worry for all Americans now, as North Korea continues to test missiles capable of hitting the United States. This is theory no more. The need to prevent proliferation of ICBM technology is immediate.
Last month’s New York Times headline read: North Korea’s Missile Success Is Linked to Ukrainian Plant, Investigators Say.” But there was more to it. North Korea shocked defense and intelligence officials with a break-out into heavy lift ICBM capability. The real question was, since they did not make it, where did they get it?
The answer, as the headline suggests, was outside North Korea. In reality, Russian-made rocket engines, in this case the RD-250 – whether made in Russia or Ukraine – appears to be the answer.
Both the Russian-made RD-180 engines, which America uses to launch our Atlas V rockets and the RD-250, implicated here – are heavy lift, Russian-made rocket engines.They are generally reliable, and until recently not sold abroad. They are the ultimate enemy of those seeking to prevent nuclear – or conventional – warhead delivery.
If not controlled by Russia, Ukraine or America, they are the ultimate enemy of ICBM non-proliferation. Put differently, if Russia or Ukraine cannot prevent the illicit sale of these rocket engines to countries like North Korea, the United States should be seeking to buy them.
Ironically, it was national policy to buy all the Russian RD-180 rocket engines, without limitation, until recently. Now, there are – in the name of targeted sanctions against Russia – limits.
These should be promptly lifted, not to help Russia – but to prevent Russia or Ukraine from selling or allowing the theft of these engines, preventing them from getting to a black-market that apparently includes North Korea.
The sadness is that we could have stopped…