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Soyuz launch
Russia maintained its human spaceflight program even as much of the rest of its space infrastructure collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union; what will happen now that the country has rebounded? (credit: RSC Energia)

A Russian resurgence? (part one)

“RUSSIA RESURGENT” read the cover of the August 16, 2008 issue of The Economist, which depicted a giant Vladimir Putin towering over advancing ranks of flag-bearing Russian soldiers as fighters and attack helicopters streak past.

This none-too-subtle image was, of course, a reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia, which signaled the country’s return as a military heavyweight to many, a reading of events reflective of the usual media exaggeration. While it may still be too early for a really thorough assessment of the Russian military’s performance in the conflict, there is little reason to believe that the Russian armed forces have been seriously rehabilitated, despite the unveiling of schemes like the State Armaments Program—still in its very early stages—and gestures like the resumption of long-range bomber flights, and a handful of high-profile military exercises (most recently, the announcement of a joint exercise with the Venezuelan navy in the Caribbean). The Russian military’s success in a limited war with a much smaller and poorer neighbor is also a long way from the “long-range power projection” capability that some of those hyping Russian military power describe as a foregone conclusion by 2020, like Barry McCaffrey in a recent pitch for an ambitious aircraft procurement program in the Joint Force Quarterly.

Nonetheless, the perception marks a dramatic turnaround in the view of Russia compared with ten years ago. In 1998 Russia was widely regarded as a basket case, and able to look forward only to more of the same. Today, it is seen as a vigorous, economically dynamic state that may not be the superpower it once was, but a much more substantial actor in international affairs, and with brighter prospects, than might have been guessed a decade ago. It seems only reasonable to wonder, then, if the Russian “resurgence” will translate to Russia’s position in space, and some are already making the case, notably Brian Harvey in his recent book, The Rebirth of the Russian Space Program.

The fall of a great space power

The Soviet Union had the world’s second-largest economy until at least 1980, and perhaps until the end of its life, which enabled it to be the space superpower that it was. Not only did it have a striking list of “firsts” to its credit from Sputnik on, but its vast infrastructure in space, its satellite networks and space stations, had no peer save the United States. And not even the US matched it in certain respects, like the sheer rate of satellite launches it was able to sustain.

Of course, this state of affairs did not continue. Following the country’s collapse in 1991, the division of the Soviet Union into fifteen states, and the disruption of the break-up, left Moscow with the trappings of the ex-superpower, the space program included, but just a quarter (or at most, a third) of the national income that had sustained them.

In 1998 Russia was widely regarded as a basket case, and able to look forward only to more of the same. Today, it is seen as a vigorous, economically dynamic state.

Predictably, the Soviet program collapsed after the country that had built it up. In 1992 the worldwide seaborne tracking fleet was recalled to Russian ports, for lack of the hard currency to pay for their stays in foreign harbors. The Buran shuttle program was cancelled the year after that. The GLONASS navigation system decayed, the 24-satellite constellation shrinking to a mere six craft by 2001 for lack of replacements. The plans to build on the Mir space station were never realized: Mir barely remained operational up to its deorbiting, and the remnants of that program were absorbed by the International Space Station. As Russian military launches fell from 28 in 1992 to a mere five in 2000, the country’s senior officers would increasingly complain of periods of “blindness” and “deafness,” in which the number of Russian photo- and electronic reconnaissance satellites in orbit at a given moment dropped to zero.

This is not to say that Russia was totally without successes in this period. That the program was able to stay alive on its old capital (and the income secured from commercial successes) was by itself an achievement. Russia remained the world’s most active satellite launcher during the decade, and around the turn of the century a turnaround began. The Russian government initiated a restoration and modernization of GLONASS, and pioneered space tourism (just one of the ways in which the country has been an important player in the commercial services market), which optimists expect to see become a significant business. Most symbolic of all, Russian Soyuz launches have proven essential to the continued functioning of the International Space Station, especially after the Columbia disaster in 2003—during which it was the only nation in the world with an established manned spaceflight capability, a status to which some think it will return given the uncertainties about the shuttle’s future.

Nonetheless, the tendency in the media was to pay far more attention to the failures than the successes, in line with the generally bleak view of Russia’s situation, while doing exactly the opposite in the case of China (expected by everyone from science fiction writers to defense analysts to be the US’s great competitor in the future). Predictably, where Soviet space activity had once loomed so large in Western imaginations, in some ways, preposterously so (see “Space war and Futurehype”, The Space Review, October 22, 2007) it is now easy to forget that this was ever the case. However, things have already started to turn up, and the Russian government has accordingly committed itself to an ambitious ten-year program, on which it hopes to build in the decades to follow.

The Russian Federal Space Program (FSP), 2006–2015

The program, first announced in July 2005, included not only the rehabilitation of GLONASS, the meeting of Russia’s commitments to the International Space Station program and the launch of a number of earth-monitoring and communications satellites, but the development of the Kliper space shuttle, the Parom space tug (a system long seen as a requirement for ambitious space development projects), and the Angara heavy-lift launcher; an upgrade of the Soyuz rocket; and a host of scientific programs, including the dispatch of unmanned missions to the moon and Mars, and a terrestrial experiment intended as part of a run-up to an international manned mission to Mars, perhaps in the 2020s.

Of course, all of this was to be funded by a substantial increase in the space budget. According to the best available data, Russia is to allot over $20 billion to its various space programs, $12 billion of them to the Federal Space Agency (with the rest going to military endeavors, and additional appropriations for GLONASS). Another $4.5 billion in commercial revenue are expected to go to the Agency, bringing the expenditures on the FSP up to $16.5 billion (out of some $25 billion going to space in total). Counting in the usual Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) factor, this may give the program the equivalent of $25 billion (out of a PPP-adjusted total of $40 billion on Russian space activity).

It seems highly unlikely Russia will be able to meet all these goals, the 2006–2015 FSP another instance of previous instances of gross over-optimism about the feasibility and cost of massive, prestigious programs.

However, given Russia’s rate of inflation, the Space Agency budget may actually fall in real terms during this period, recently observed rates (15 percent earlier this year) frequently exceeding any announced plans for funding increases. It is also worth noting that government allocations fell into arrears back in 2006. Along with the inevitable ups and downs of the commercial market that is expected to carry a large part of the tab, this raises questions about the availability of the will and the means to keep the budgets at the planned level.

Additionally, even assuming the highest estimates that can be extracted from the available data, it seems highly unlikely Russia will be able to meet all these goals, the 2006–2015 FSP another instance of previous instances of gross over-optimism about the feasibility and cost of massive, prestigious programs. To put it into perspective, an optimistic assessment would have the Space Agency budget growing from the $1.4 billion commonly cited for 2007 to $2–3 billion by 2015. This means that the plan is for Russia to catch up with France and Japan by the middle of the next decade. The ten-year program budget, even counting the supplementary commercial revenue, also comes to what NASA spends in roughly one year (and the total space budget substantially less than what NASA and the Defense Department together spend annually).

It is inconceivable that any of those other programs would accomplish so much with so little, and there have already been disappointments in this regard. The design and development bill for the Kliper ran five times as high as the Russian government’s original estimate.

Consequently, Russia will have to spend more, or do less (perhaps trimming costs by using existing launch systems for a bit longer than hoped, or curtailing the scientific and exploratory programs in favor of priority services like GLONASS), or some combination of both. However, the Russian government’s ability to spend more (or even just this much) will depend greatly on the performance of its economy. So will its ability to share out the costs of projects like the Kliper (in which the European Space Agency has taken an interest), since this will determine the view of Russia as a reliable partner, even more than international approval or disapproval of its actions. It only seems appropriate, then, to take a look at Russia’s renewed economic growth, rarely examined in any detail, but of crucial importance to any analysis like this one: the subject of part two of this essay.