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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Needs Level Field For Rockets

Russia has finally made it into the international launch business for Western satellites. A Proton rocket fired a U.S.- made television broadcasting satellite into geostationary orbit Tuesday for a Luxembourg-based company which operates Europe's most successful satellite television system.

Russia has launched spacecraft before, for India and for other countries, but this was a first straightforward commercial launch for a private client.

The launch has proved that there is no technical reason why a Russian rocket should not be counted among the world's main commercial launch vehicles, which number the U.S. Atlas, the European Ariane 4 and the Chinese Long March.

For Russia it has been a long haul. It took years to overcome Western suspicion of the motives for marketing Russian launches abroad.

U.S. control over determining which countries could receive exports of militarily sensitive technologies has given the U.S. government a de facto veto on any satellite operator using a Russian rocket. All communications satellites have such U.S. components.

In the end, as the Cold War waned and the Western technology embargo was slowly lifted, the issue became not ideological but commercial. U.S. rocket makers, and the European Ariane consortium, did not want a new competitor.

The U.S. government agreed to a compromise, limiting Russia to about 20 launches before the year 2000. Not only the number of launches, but also the price was controlled -- the Russians were not allowed to undercut the Western launchers by a big margin.

The result is a rigged market: The Russians have been given a share, but not to the extent that they cause too much heat for the other participants. For Khrunichev, the maker of the Proton, it means a healthy profit margin, but much less total income than if there were a level playing field.

It is reasonable for the U.S. government to stipulate a transition period in which the Russians are let into the market. But after that period is over, it is just as reasonable for the Russians to expect to be able to compete freely. Russia is flooded by Western products, so why should one of the few competitive high-tech items that the Russians produce be held back?

Russia cannot yet assume that its success will continue. The Chinese have also made an entry into the world launcher market after a similar sort of deal with the United States on a quota and pricing. The Chinese have recently suffered launch failures which, despite alleged sales at lower than permitted rates, are making clients look for other options -- including Proton.