US-Russian Space Cooperation: A Model for Nuclear Security


Simon Saradzhyan and William Tobey | Bulleting of the Atomic Scientists - TRANSCEND Media Service

7 Mar 2017 – Without the town of Korolev, Russia, Houston would have had a problem. That suburb of Moscow, named after the father of the Soviet space program, produces capsules that are now the only way NASA can transport its astronauts to space and back. America also remains dependent on Russia for engines to power rockets that launch US government payloads—including satellites that spy on Moscow. Russia, too, depends on the United States: Its spacecraft and rocket makers earn billions of dollars launching American astronauts and cargo into space, while Russia’s strategic aviation—part of the force meant to deter America—reportedly continued to use signals beamed by US GPS satellites even after relations between the two countries began to deteriorate in 2012. (Link in Russian.)

This interdependence between the US and Russian space programs persists even though the two countries are now living through what some pundits describe as a new Cold War. There was a time not so long ago, however, when the two nations viewed space solely as an area of strategic competition. The steps that Washington and Moscow took to transform their space rivalry into cooperation can serve today as a model for working together to help prevent nuclear terrorism, no matter how strained relations may seem.

In the early 1960s, manned space flight became emblematic of US-Russian competition, with each country sacrificing blood and treasure to beat the other. Space flight involved the most advanced technologies and sensitive secrets of the time. Bilateral cooperation was unthinkable. Yet, by the summer of 1975, the two countries had launched their joint Apollo-Soyuz mission. Today, the two space programs are not just cooperative but interdependent, although the United States is developing alternatives to Russian space systems.

While continuing to work together in exploring the cosmos, the United States and Russia have all but ended cooperation in a sphere where a failure to work together could lead to catastrophe not only for the two countries but globally. Reacting to Russia’s use of force in Ukraine, the Obama administration restricted nuclear energy and technology cooperation between the two countries. Russia responded by effectively ending a range of projects aimed at improving nuclear security. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the measures a response to Washington’s “hostile” move to freeze nuclear-energy cooperation. Such a rollback is all the more regrettable given that top statesmen on both sides have described nuclear terrorism as one of the greatest threats to their respective countries and humanity as a whole.

Four concrete steps can reestablish the US-Russian partnership to prevent nuclear terrorism:

  • Set mutually agreed goals. The United States and post-Communist Russia could not have achieved great strides in their cooperation in manned space exploration if they didn’t agree about their common goal—the International Space Station. If Moscow and Washington had not agreed to drop their separate space station programs—America’s planned Freedom and Russia’s aging Mir—in favor of co-leading a multinational effort to build an international station, Americans would not be riding to space on Russian rockets and Russians would not have supplied fuel for American inter-planetary probes. Following the example set in space, the United States and Russia could seek to use templates deployed for effective nuclear security as an example to be discussed with other nuclear-capable states.
  • Agree to pursue goals in a partnership of equals. US-Russian space cooperation would not have become so comprehensive and mutually beneficial if Washington had not treated Moscow as an equal partner in that endeavor, even though post-Communist Russia was no match for the United States economically, militarily and demographically. Likewise, US-Russian cooperation in the nuclear-security sphere cannot be revived unless it is based on a foundation of equality appropriate to both countries’ deep experience in nuclear matters.
  • Designate agencies and leaders responsible for advancing the partnership. When US-Russian space cooperation began in 1975, NASA had no counterpart in Russia with which to work. A major advance in post-Cold War space cooperation between Washington and Moscow came when the Russian Space Agency was established in April 1992, providing NASA with a direct, single, authorized counterpart. The United States and Russia should again designate lead agencies in nuclear security cooperation as well as revive the Nuclear Security Working Group that functioned as part of a US-Russian bilateral presidential commission until it was suspended. The designation of responsible senior-level officials with specific goals and deadlines also was crucial to the Bratislava Initiative, under which presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin increased the pace and scope of nuclear security work in Russia. The revived working group could focus on coordinating research, development, and deployment of new technologies to improve nuclear security and on sharing information about threats to nuclear security. It could also work to establish empirically based standards for effective security in regard to nuclear weapons and materials and allow for discussion with other states that have nuclear weapons.
  • Ensure that cooperation yields tangible benefits. One of the factors that drove the United States and Russia to cooperate in space was money. Both sides found it profitable to coordinate their space programs and share costs. NASA has estimated it would have cost more than $2 billion a year to continue flying space shuttles beyond 2010 until a new US orbiter became operational. And the benefits from cooperation are not just financial. In a 2008 op-ed, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin wrote that using Russian spacecraft would probably save lives. If NASA had continued to fly shuttles instead of sending astronauts to the international space station in Russian-made Soyuz craft, the chances of losing astronauts would have increased from about one in 80 to one in eight, according to Griffin.

To be sure, such cooperation would necessarily involve the protection of sensitive technologies. But the two sides have managed to do this in their space cooperation.

One way to encourage the emergence of equality and tangible benefits would be for US and Russian entities to pursue joint research and development of nuclear security hardware and concepts of operation for application domestically and in third countries. The United States and Russia could then independently manufacture equipment based on the intellectual property they have jointly developed. Scientists in both countries are best positioned to define the realms of work that would be most useful, but a few examples seem to be worth considering.

On the Russian side:

  • Technology for remotely detecting explosives (NATO was previously cooperating with Russia in this area).
  • Robots to guard security perimeters.
  • Vehicles designed for defending nuclear installations, conducting reconnaissance and fighting saboteurs.

On the US side:

  • Physical cryptography” for secure and accurate accounting of the world’s nuclear arsenals.
  • New nuclear-material detectors that operate with greater accuracy and at a lower cost, especially in distinguishing different types of material. Of course, the relatively small nuclear security market won’t generate the same scale of profits for either side as the space market, but if cooperation in third countries succeeds, it would generate significant revenue, enable US and Russian entities to use the products of their joint research to improve security in their own countries, and renew opportunities for US-Russian collaboration to enhance each other’s nuclear security.

Russia and the United States continue to have real and important differences over national security issues. That, however, does not mean the two countries should not or cannot cooperate on matters in which joint efforts can greatly enhance the security of both countries. Improving nuclear security is one such sphere, and the Trump administration—which has sought to improve relations with Russia—should seize upon it, both as a means to achieve closer cooperation with Moscow and as a benefit to gain from such ties.


Simon Saradzhyan is the director of the Russia Matters project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

William Tobey was deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2006 to 2009. He directs the US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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