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Pentagon to stop use of commercial satellites launched by Russia starting in 2023

DS-Series Russian research satellite. (Benutzer:HPH/Wikimedia Commons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) will stop utilizing commercial satellites launched with Russian rockets beginning in 2023 as relations between the two countries deteriorate.

The order, published on May 31 in the U.S. Federal Register, could deal a blow to Russia’s industry while also helping U.S. startups like SpaceX and Blue Origin founded by billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively.

The move highlights the growing distrust between Washington and Moscow since Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and U.S. attempts to use its economic influence to penalize the country for its actions.

The United States “realizes that Russia is not going to be a friend and that anything we do that helps their aerospace sector can possibly come back to bite us because they are trying to undermine our security in every way they can,” Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the CSIS think tank in Washington, told RFE/RL.

“They are trying to steer satellite operators away from using Russia. It is not a sanction, but it is in the same vein,” he added.

The Pentagon already limits launches of dedicated U.S. military satellites to U.S. companies. However, it contracts with commercial satellite operators to use some of their capacity for military needs.

Some of those commercial satellites may have been lifted into space by Russian rockets. The DOD rule will end that practice as of 2023.

‘Unacceptable’ Risk

International Launch Services (ILS), a U.S.-based subsidiary of the Russian space agency Roskosmos, told RFE/RL that Soyuz and Proton rockets have been used to launch satellites for operators, including the U.S. government.

The Pentagon said the rule was necessary to protect national security.

“The objective of the rule is to prohibit award of contracts for commercial satellite services to a foreign entity if entering into such [a] contract would create an unacceptable cybersecurity risk,’’ the Pentagon said in a statement e-mailed to RFE/RL.

International Launch Services, which markets the Russian-built Proton and Angara launch vehicles to U.S. companies, dismissed the impact that the new order would have on its business.

“While a significant subset of ILS customers either have, or plan to, provide commercial satellite services under [Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement], this has been somewhat mitigated due to the presence of long-term legally binding contracts that were put in place before the rule,” the company said in a statement to RFE/RL.

This is not the first time the U.S. has sought to squeeze Russia’s space industry. Washington already announced it will stop the use of Russian-made engines to launch military satellites beginning in 2023.

Some U.S. military satellites have been put into space aboard American Atlas rockets that utilize Russian engines, an arrangement overseen by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The ban was a reaction to Russia’s recent foreign policy, including the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and its support for separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.

The new rule will indirectly help private U.S. companies, such as Blue Origin and SpaceX, said Harrison,

Those companies have been moving quickly to build viable launch vehicles that would replace Russian rockets, not only for satellite launches but also for servicing the space station.

The satellite launch vehicle market is expected to grow quickly in the coming years and reach $2.4 billion by 2024, according to an August report by research firm Global Market Insights.

Russian rockets recently carried satellites into space for U.S. companies Planet Labs, a provider of Earth imagining services, and OneWeb, a communications startup.

Neither company responded to an RFE/RL request for comment on whether the new DOD rule will have an impact on their launch plans.