In the most significant linkup so far between U.S. and Russian defense firms, Lockheed and Khrunichev Enterprise of Moscow announced Monday that they have formed a joint venture to sell commercial launch services with the Russian Proton rocket.
The alliance combines two Cold War industrial adversaries: Lockheed, the largest U.S. manufacturer of military space hardware, and Khrunichev, one of Russia's leading state-owned aerospace operations.
Lockheed Vice President Mel R. Brashears said the joint venture will initially focus on launching commercial satellites and will eventually aim at manufacturing and selling other space services and products.
"We clearly see this as a very significant undertaking and a long-term relationship," Brashears said. "The Proton is just the first product or service we would offer."
But the Proton business is likely to elicit sharp protests from U.S. rocket makers, mainly McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics. U.S. policies have sharply limited the number of American-made satellites that can be launched by Russian or Chinese booster rockets. The U.S. industry has complained that government-subsidized space programs in those countries pose unfair competition for American firms.
General Dynamics officials have testified before Congress against opening the U.S. market to foreign-made launch vehicles. "We feel it is important for the U.S. government to protect the interest of the American launch industry," company spokesman Al Spivak said Monday.
But Lockheed is counting on that effort failing. "We eventually believe the policies will have to change," Brashears said.
Lockheed and Khrunichev said their deal is an effort to "move toward defense conversion," an idea many U.S. defense executives have disparaged as a liberal agenda. The State Department approved the deal last week, and Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin gave his approval earlier this month.
Lockheed did not disclose the potential size of the joint venture, but the international commercial launch market is worth several hundred million dollars annually. The overall commercial space market is worth about $2.5 billion annually.
Brashears said he expects that to grow tenfold over the next decade.