Russian rocketry: win some, lose some

Both commiserations and congratulations are in order for the latest developments in Russia’s rocket technology.

The former offering is appropriate because the launch of the Soyuz 2.1b weather satellite, a mother ship carrying 19 smaller satellites, failed three days ago. The mother ship managed to reach its intermediate orbit, but then the smaller satellites went awry.

The commiserations are liberally laced with sighs of relief: accepting as a given the Russians’ keen interest in climatic vagaries, one may still suspect that this was a test of a diabolical machine capable of carrying MIRVed nuclear missiles.

Had the Soyuz (incidentally, all spacecraft so designated are descendants of von Braun’s V-2 rocket still remembered fondly by older Londoners) been carrying its ultimate payload, a similar failure might have had catastrophic consequences. Even without nuclear warheads on board, had the 19 satellites fallen on inhabited areas, the consequences would have been less catastrophic but still unpleasant.

Let’s comment parenthetically that the entire Russian space programme, for all its incidental innocent uses,* is an offshoot of a military build-up. This has been the case ever since the 1950s, when Khrushchev ordered Sergei Korolev, then anonymously known in the Soviet press as the Chief Designer, to come up with a missile capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to America.

Using his own resources, and also the work of a whole team of kidnapped Nazi rocket scientists, Korolev delivered. Having spent several years in a Soviet labour camp, he was acutely aware that failure wasn’t an option.

Interestingly, his wasn’t the only team working on the project. While castigating capitalist competition publicly, Khrushchev recognised its advantages in areas that mattered.

That’s why he created two parallel setups working on the problem: one led by Korolev, the other by Vladimir Chelomey, whose staff included Khrushchev’s son Sergei.

Anyway, Korolev won the race and, when reporting his achievement to Khrushchev, he mentioned in passing that the same child of the V-2 could deliver a satellite into orbit. Being quick on the political uptake, Khrushchev instantly recognised the propaganda potential of such a feat.

On 4 October, 1957, the satellite was launched, contributing to world languages the word ‘Sputnik’ and scaring the living bejeesus out of the Americans. Indirectly, the Sputnik was responsible for delivering the presidency to Kennedy who throughout his campaign cleverly exploited the nonexistent ‘missile gap’.

The subsequent space race between the Russians and the Americans has been about one side trying to get ahead of the other in the military stakes. The peaceful aspect of space exploration has been secondary, though more important to the Americans than to the Russians.

Where Russian space launches haven’t had an immediate military objective, they’ve had a propaganda value. The Soyuz 2.1b pursued both, designed as it was to show the world that Putin’s Russia is still in the forefront of sci-fi technology. I for one am glad that she isn’t.

However, and this is where the congratulations come in, that failure was offset by the remarkable success of another missile project underwritten by Russia. Two days ago, the N. Korean ICBM Hwasong-15 was successfully launched from a mobile system.

I’ve already written about the staggering success of Kim’s missile programme, especially over the last couple of years, ever since the West began to cotton on to the true nature of Putin’s regime.

As the programme accelerated, the share of Russian components on N. Korean missiles was growing. If the Russian share in the Hwasong-12 was at least 60 per cent, it was 80 per cent for the Hwasong-14 and a minimum of 90 per cent for the Hwasong-15 – along with 100 per cent of the knowhow.

The missile’s range is listed at 15,000 km, which puts us all into the target area. Western experts doubt that the Hwasong-15 will be able to cover such a distance carrying a full nuclear payload – a missile capable of that will take another year to develop, they say. That’s all right then. I feel better already.

The Hwasong-15 represents a success of the Russian missile industry and a factor in Putin’s foreign policy, heavily reliant as it is on blackmail. Kim is Putin’s proxy, his joker in the pack. By arming the N. Korean monster to the teeth, Putin sends a message to the West: do as I say – or else this madman will do the talking.

That much should be clear to anyone who’s less enamoured of Putin than our useful idiots are (most of them, it pains me to report, on the Right).

I don’t know if James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence, belongs in that category. I wouldn’t be surprised – why should he be any different from most other Trump appointees? One way or the other, in commenting on the Hwasong-15 launch, he never referred to Russia at all.

That oversight was corrected by Mattis’s Polish counterpart Antoni Macierewicz, who, speaking with Slavic forthrightness, flatly stated that “This whole N. Korean missile-nuclear business is Putin’s project.”

Of course Mr Macierewicz’s credibility may in some eyes be undermined by his explicit belief in the authenticity of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but one suspects he’s more qualified in his immediate area of expertise, and less affected by the traditional Slavic malaise.

I’m not trying to indulge in panic-mongering, but I’m worried – rather a lot. You’ll have to decide for yourself how worried you are, if at all.

* I was involved in one such innocent project, having worked at NASA on the Apollo-Soyuz project in 1974-1975.