November 27, 2007

Russia’s New SE Asian Space Launch Facility

By Muraviev, Alexey D

COMPETITION among major space powers for the growing commercial market of space-related services - primarily concentrated in the sphere of launching payloads into a near-Earth orbit - took a new turn in the first week of October 2007 with the announcement that Russia was planning to build another overseas space launch facility, on the tropical Indonesian island of Biak, near the Papua New Guinea coast.7 The Biak facility will be the third Russian space launch center outside of the country, with the other two located in Kazakhstan (the Baikonur multi-role space complex) and French Guiana (the joint Russian-European Space Agency Kourou launch complex). Codenamed The Air Launch [Vozdushny Start], the joint Russia- Indonesia space project aims to provide efficient and cost- effective launch services to a growing clientele in South East Asia and beyond.

The project will use a Russian built, converted Antonov An-124 Ruslan strategic heavy lifter as an airborne platform to launch a converted ballistic missile from an operational altitude of 10,000 meters. The ballistic missile model is expected to be either a launch vehicle variant of the R-29R submarine-launched ballistic missile, codenamed Volna, or a variant of the R-36M Voyevoda, codenamed Dnepr, inter-continental ballistic missile. The technical framework expected to be deployed has a number of advantages, which include:

* The ability to deploy satellites with a total weight of up to 900 kg without extensive booster burn8;

* The absence of a need to develop a full scale ground launch facility or to design a new launch vehicle; and

* The option of utilizing converted Antonov An-124s as multi-use delivery platforms.

These factors make The Air Launch a cost-effective and highly- competitive option for commercial and state clients. It is expected that the first satellite will be launched from Biak in 2010.9

Discussions and preliminary work on the project began in 1999. However, the final decision to develop and use the Biak space center was facilitated during the one-day visit of Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin to Indonesia on September 6, 2007. The seriousness of both sides' intentions is highlighted by the fact that, to date, Indonesia has invested more than $28-million in the project.10

For Indonesia, The Air Launch is a chance to attract foreign investment, secure access to near space, and to increase its geo- political value within South-East Asia. However, Russia's strategic goals are far more ambitious. The project provides the nation with an opportunity to compete for leadership in the commercial use of space, and future space exploration and exploitation, and signifies a clear long-term strategy adopted by the Kremlin to gain strategic advantage in space.

The Air Launch will help to further strengthen Russia-Indonesia cooperation in the security and economic sphere and will open up South-East, South and possibly East Asian markets to the Roskosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency).

It is clear that the collapse of discussions with the Australia Government to build a ground space port on Christmas Island, located 800 km south of Jakarta, did not diminish Russia's interest to export space technologies and services to the south-eastern corner of the Pacific, where it is already engaged in pursuing joint initiatives with Malaysia.

There are also clear geo-strategic advantages. Russia will gain access to a fully developed aerospace facility in Biak with an airstrip and other elements of ground infrastructure sufficient to accommodate numerous types of aircraft, including transcontinental heavy lifters such as the Antonov An-124, a backbone of the nation's capacity to project power.11

The Air Launch project with Indonesia will enable Russia to establish a strategic foothold in South-East Asia, thus cementing the nation's longer-term desire to position itself as an active player in the region, as well as the broader Asia-Pacific.

7 Dmitriy Litovkin, "Rossiya Strait Vozdushny Kosmodrom" [Russia is Building an Airborne Spaceport], Izvestiya, October 2, 2007.

8 Ibid.

9 "Pervy Start Sputnika s Samoleta Proizvedut v 2010" [The First Launch of a Satellite from an Aircraft will be carried out in 2010], Lenta.Ru, October 1, 2007.

10 Litovkin, "Rossiya Strait Vozdushny Kosmodrom".

11 The bulk of Russia's fleet of Antonov An-124s is under the command of 61st Air Army, the Military-Transport Aviation Force.

By Dr Alexey D. Muraviev6

6 Dr Alexey Muraviev is a Strategic Affairs analyst at the Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia, and works closely with Future Directions International, the Australian sister organization of the ISSA, publisher of Defense & Foreign Affairs.