Space Force Dreams of Using Rockets to Supply Warfighters
Blue Origin photo
The Defense Department hopes to one day be able to use commercial rockets to rapidly transport cargo — and potentially troops — from point to point across the globe. While that might sound like a pipedream to some, experts say the concept is theoretically feasible, but many challenges must be overcome for it to be militarily viable.
The Air Force Research Laboratory in June designated its new Rocket Cargo effort a Vanguard program, making it a top science and technology priority.
“Logistics speed is at the heart of military supremacy,” the lab said in a description of the program. “If a commercial company is in advanced development for a new capability to move materiel faster, then DoD needs to promptly engage and seek to be early adopters.”
The goal is to be able to partner with commercial space companies to deliver up to 100 tons of supplies and equipment “anywhere on the planet on tactical timelines,” AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle told reporters.
The military envisions procuring this capability as a service rather than buying its own rockets.
The Air Force Research Lab expects to award several contracts to companies that can provide launch services and businesses that can advance other aspects of the logistics cycle such as loadmaster load/unload capability, rapid launch clearance, schedulers and environment survivability.
The lab is partnering with U.S. Transportation Command and the Space Force to assess the technology’s potential, to include improvements in delivery cost and speed compared to air cargo operations. If it proves viable and affordable, the Space and Missile Systems Center will be responsible for transitioning the effort to a program of record.
Greg Spanjers, Rocket Cargo program manager, noted that this concept isn’t new.
“It has always been an interesting, intriguing idea but … it has never really made sense in the past,” he said. “What has frankly changed is a major emergence on the commercial side with much higher capability rockets at a much lower cost point than we’re used to seeing. … Reusability also brings down the cost per launch because we get to amortize the cost of the rocket over several launches.”
Spanjers was once one of the “scoffers,” but now “it looks like technology may have caught up with the good idea,” he said.
While the initial focus will be on transporting cargo, some experts say it may be possible someday to deploy troops around the world via these types of systems.
“We’re just going to watch what happens on the commercial side,” Spanjers said. “If they turn this into a human transport mechanism, which some of the companies are talking about doing, sure the DoD would be interested in exploring options for that.”
Chris Stone, a senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute’s Spacepower Advantage Research Center, said the rocket cargo idea isn’t pie in the sky. However, for it to be militarily viable, a platform must be able to be rapidly loaded, launched, landed/recovered, unloaded, refueled and restaged at a sufficient tempo and cost, he noted.
“Reusable rocket takeoff and landing have been demonstrated by SpaceX and Blue Origin,” Stone said. “However, there has not been any demonstrated cargo delivery at the 100 metric ton level yet in a point-to-point fashion.”
Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation, said payloads must be able to survive the physical forces they will encounter during launch — including a significant number of Gs during acceleration and “massive vibrations” — while not adversely impacting the dynamics of the rocket.
Weeden noted that the platforms that have been launched from the United States thus far have gone to outer space or have come down and landed on U.S. soil or platforms at sea.
“We’ve never done [an operation where] rockets take off from one country … and land in another country,” he said. “How do you get both countries on the same page with their regulations and licenses and all that kind of stuff, not to mention coordinating the interface with air traffic?”
Stone said short turnaround times between flights, which could be a military requirement, have not been fully demonstrated.
Being able to launch rapidly could be critical for these types of missions, experts say.
“A rocket can get all the way around the planet in 90 minutes,” Spanjers said. “The question is … what does it look like when you add in all of the other things you need to do to launch and land a rocket realistically, and are there aspects of that that you can speed up? Because we fully understand that if it takes us two days to load the rocket, it doesn’t matter if you get there in one hour” post launch.
Stone noted that getting the infrastructure in place for military-style loading and quick-turn maintenance has yet to be fully demonstrated.
Spanjers said rockets could take off and land at ports that will be built around the world by the commercial sector.
“At the S&T level, we’re certainly going to explore if we could extend their capability to land it in a number of diverse locations, including exploring the capability to potentially airdrop from the rocket,” he said. “What we’re doing under the Vanguard is trying to quantitatively inform senior leadership of where you could potentially put cargo with this capability. Is it really global or … do you really run into limits either due to terrain or whatever?”
Once the cargo reaches its destination, it will need to be offloaded efficiently.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can put vehicles on a rocket, unload those vehicles and go, which is certainly going to give our [Space and Missile Systems Center] partners a headache,” Spanjers said.
Weeden noted that getting a rocket from point A to point B is only part of the challenge facing the military.
“Let’s say you managed to stack one of the giant boosters full of 100 tons of supplies and you launch it somewhere,” he said. “How are you going to unload it? What kind of infrastructure do you need wherever it lands to be able to unload it? … How vulnerable is that unloading infrastructure going to be to adversary attacks? It’s not a matter of you just drop this thing in the middle of nowhere.”
Weeden cited SpaceX’s Starship — which stands at nearly 400 feet tall — as an example of how large cargo rockets can be.
“Let’s say you’ve got a 15-ton [military] vehicle sitting on top of that, it’s up several stories. How the hell do you get that down?” he asked.
Some of these problems could potentially be avoided if rockets could airdrop their payloads. However, developing such a capability will be “quite a tough challenge,” Spanjers said.
How might an airdrop from a rocket work?
“My guess is at a certain altitude while they’re dropping through the atmosphere, they’ll probably parachute something out. And then after it clears enough path, [the rocket] will turn back vertical and fire its rocket engines again, and go back” to an established port, Stone said.
Weeden said the airdrop concept poses a host of challenges for dealing with the payload, including how it can be detached mid-flight.
In addition to landing rights and licensing, other issues surrounding the potential for suborbital rockets traversing the space and airspace above sovereign countries must also be addressed, Stone said.
A number of factors could limit the trajectories available, such as prohibitions against flying over populated areas. Officials must also avoid situations where their platforms could be mistaken by other countries for nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, experts say.
“You can sit down and you can calculate all sorts of suborbital and orbital trajectories to do [rocket cargo], but there are challenges in taking those theoretical, mathematical calculations and translating them into the real world,” Weeden said.
If rocket cargo proves viable, when might the military be able to leverage the capability?
“It is still years in the future, but it could be feasible within the decade,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Stone said: “To truly have a world-wide point-to-point capability with sufficient scale probably would be closer to five-to-seven years — if there is the political will behind it.”
Meanwhile, Transportation Command would like to see a “proof of principle” in the near future.
“USTRANSCOM is researching space as a mode to distribute global logistics where and when it is needed through a cooperative research-and-development agreement with SpaceX and XArc, as well as a close partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory and the U.S. Space Force and Air Force,” command spokesperson Scott Ross said in an email. “USTRANSCOM remains hopeful that a proof of principle is possible before the end of the year. Planning is ongoing [and officials are] exploring options and the feasibility of various courses of action with partners in the DoD and industry.”
Is it wise for the military to pursue a rocket cargo capability? Analysts are divided.
“Looking into how we can leverage this technology to rapidly deliver cargo to land bases or even re-arming ships at sea, are all areas that should be explored,” Stone said.
“This is kind of like air transport a century ago,” he added. Aircraft were once considered unreliable but later became a common mode of transportation for cargo and people in the military and civilian sectors, he noted.
Harrison said much will depend on commercial investments.
“If things like SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s New Shepard end up being safe and economically viable, then DoD should absolutely be able to tap into that technology for military missions,” he said.
However, “it is a niche capability that would be much more expensive than other forms of cargo transportation,” he added. Because of this, it would likely only be leveraged in “extraordinary circumstances” such as extremely time-sensitive missions where lives are at stake.
Weeden said he isn’t sold on the idea even though “a lot of the space community is getting caught up in the hype.”
While rocket cargo is theoretically possible, “there’s a huge gulf between theoretically possible and practical, let alone militarily useful,” he said.
Weeden said the capability might have been applicable when the Defense Department was supplying a large ground war effort in Afghanistan, but less so in the new strategic environment.
“If we are going through this great power competition that everyone’s talking about, what is the utility of this? Are we actually going to be setting up giant bases in China or in Russia or on their borders that we have to sustain and supply? I don’t think so,” Weeden said. “If it doesn’t serve a need, or if it’s not better than other ways to accomplish the same goal, why is the military investing in this — other than it’s cool?”