Moscow is tentatively discussing the possibility of a satellite launch facility in Cuba, the head of Russia's space agency said Sept. 17. The suggestion, which is meant to ruffle U.S. feathers while courting Cuba, brings up both political and technical considerations.
Moscow intends to share space technology with Cuba and is tentatively discussing the possibility of a satellite launch facility with Havana, Russian space agency Roscosmos chief Anatoly Perminov said Sept. 17. The announcement by Perminov, who is part of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin's delegation currently visiting Latin America, is significant for both political and technical reasons. In the wake of the power transition from Fidel to Raul Castro, Havana is holding its cards close. The Soviets chose to support Fidel Castro during the Cold War as heavily as they did for good reason: At less than 100 miles from the Florida coast and astride both the southern and northern entries to the Gulf of Mexico (and thus the strategically significant mouth of the Mississippi River), Cuba is perhaps the most strategic territory in the U.S. periphery. But Cuba was left out to dry when the Soviet Union collapsed, and it cannot escape the geographic reality that it neighbors the world's largest economy and sole military superpower, while Russia is half a world away. Though ideologically and politically difficult, the ultimate financial and security benefits of a slow rapprochement with Washington could be immense for Havana. Conversely, Russian support could be quick and significant, given Cuba's years of isolation. But Russian support would also preclude any warming of relations with the United States, and Cuba would run the risk of another abandonment by the Kremlin. This is where a potential satellite launch facility, which would represent a long-term investment, comes into play. Such a facility could not only be a huge source of employment and investment for the Cuban economy, but from Havana's perspective, it could also act as an anchor for Russian investment and interest — ensuring that the Kremlin's interest in Cuba is more than fleeting. From the Russian perspective (just as it was from the Soviet perspective), Cuba is the perfect location to remind Washington that it, too, has a sensitive periphery. If the Kremlin ever feels that the United States is pushing too hard on Russia's core periphery, such as in Georgia or Ukraine, Moscow can ratchet up pressure in the Caribbean through military, overt and covert means. (click image to enlarge) But a hypothetical satellite launch facility would be more than a mere Russian bribe to Cuba and a way for the Kremlin to make Washington uneasy. The United States chose Cape Canaveral to host Kennedy Space Center in part to have plenty of open water for easterly launches and because the city is reasonably close to the equator. Easterly launches close to the equator are the most efficient due to the rotation of the earth, maximizing the payload a certain launch vehicle can boost into orbit. Meanwhile, locations with open stretches to their north and south allow for polar orbital insertion. (The United States launches most of its polar orbit satellites to the south from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.) Similarly, the French Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) and the European Space Agency use the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. Russia has long been stuck with the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where vast stretches of empty territory substitute for open water. But this site is far from the equator, leading to significant inefficiencies. Nevertheless, from Baikonur and several other locations in its northern territory, Russia has continued to be one of the most significant providers of space launch services in the world, an ability facilitated in part by its repurposing of old intercontinental ballistic missiles as satellite launch vehicles. Moving to a more suitable location (much like France did in 1964 when it choose its French Guiana site) could be tempting if the Kremlin considers space launching an important sector in which it hopes to remain competitive. Both Cuba and Venezuela are technically attractive for this purpose. But in this case, the concern of longevity also comes up for the Kremlin. A new launch facility would entail an enormous investment, and Moscow would not do this simply to buy off Havana. It would have to have a high confidence in the long-term survival of a friendly regime. This is not to say that it would expect Raul Castro or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to remain in power indefinitely, but rather that neither government would be replaced by one so friendly to the United States that Russia's investment in launch facilities is lost. At this point, talk of a space center in Cuba might be mostly bluster. A functioning launch facility would take years to construct once a final site was settled on. But the mere idea of Russian launch vehicles roaring up the U.S. East Coast will undoubtedly ruffle feathers in Washington — which is no doubt part of Moscow's intent.