The Air Force announced June 4, 2021, the designation of Rocket Cargo as the fourth Vanguard program as part of its transformational science and technology portfolio identified in the DAF 2030 Science and Technology strategy for the next decade. U.S. Air Force illustration.
The U.S. Air Force wants to test whether it’s possible to move hundreds of tons of military equipment to forward operating locations and bases around the world using reusable rockets instead of mobility aircraft.
Last week, the service announced that “Rocket Cargo” will be the fourth experiment under its Vanguard program, which examines how new technologies and commercial capabilities can be applied to its missions. The service is asking lawmakers for $47.9 million in its 2022 budget request to develop the technology and test “whether it can deliver cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour,” according to budget documents.
“We decided it’s time to make an investment and see if this turns into an operational capability,” Greg Spanjers, Rocket Cargo program manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said during a briefing with reporters Friday.
The idea of using rockets for cargo delivery is not new.
Last year, U.S. Transportation Command, or TRANSCOM, and aerospace company SpaceX began looking at the project. And in 2018, Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, then head of Air Mobility Command, or AMC, laid out his vision for the command’s future priorities, including rocket logistics delivery.
“About five years ago, when we brought this [idea] onboard, honestly, a lot of people looked at me and went, ‘Are you nuts?'” Everhart said in an interview Monday. Military.com caught up with the retired general on the recent developments.
“It’s a game changer,” Everhart said, “and I think it opens up a huge amount of avenues for logistics and new logistics systems, which further opens up avenues for jobs and the economy.
“It also is a game changer in the fact that we can do point-to-point cargo rapidly, which gets inside the [decision-making process] of our enemy, which really opens up new avenues for strategy,” he added.
Spanjers on Friday agreed there was skepticism about Everhart’s initial proposal years ago.
“I was, frankly, one of the scoffers at the time because we’ve looked at this for many, many decades, and it’s never made sense,” he said, adding that it’s different this time.
Some key findings have changed, including upper limits on how many tons of cargo a rocket can carry. To start, it should be roughly the same as a C-17 Globemaster III, Spanjers said.
“The cost per pound to transport it decreases as the rockets get larger,” he said. “We also have multiple companies that are using their own money to develop various aspects of reentry systems that allows you to get the global reach to return the payload anywhere on the planet.”
Private industry tackling the issue gives the services leverage, said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
The private sector has been working on the technology to make rocket resupply feasible for years, with “SpaceX arguably at the forefront with its Starship and Super Heavy family of vehicles,” Harrison said in an email Monday. “Blue Origin is also in the mix.
“Suborbital cargo and passenger flights are likely to become a reality within this decade, so I wouldn’t discount the idea [of rocket resupply],” he said. “If it is a fully reusable system that refuels before flying back, then it will need a fair amount of infrastructure on both ends. But if it is a capsule that flies out and may be considered expendable, then you could image ‘space drops’ of cargo into forward locations on unprepared terrain.”
He added, “It would still be a niche capability because of the price per pound, but it could be worth it under certain situations.”
The Rocket Cargo program will study how the military can safely land a rocket “near personnel and structures, engineer a rocket cargo bay and logistics for rapid loading and unloading, and air-drop cargo from the rocket after reentry in order to service locations where a rocket or aircraft cannot possibly land,” the Air Force said in a release.
The research lab also is looking at ways “to rapidly measure high-altitude weather, which is a key aspect of the launch,” Spanjers said.
Rocket resupply potentially could be used for disaster relief and humanitarian or nontraditional missions in remote areas, easing the burden on TRANSCOM and AMC units, officials said.
The Air Force’s Space and Missiles Systems Center, or SMC, will be responsible for transitioning the Vanguard to a Space Force program of record, said Brig. Gen. Jason Cothern, vice commander and primary executive officer for the Space Enterprise Corps at SMC.
The organization would treat rocket resupply similarly to the way it oversees space launch activities today, Cothern said during Friday’s briefing.
As the Pentagon pivots to the Pacific, rocket resupply would be useful in the vast expanses of that region, Everhart said. As noted by Popular Mechanics, it takes a C-17 cargo aircraft 12 hours to make the trip from California to Okinawa, Japan; a rocket could do it in 30 minutes.
“That is the gator next to the boat, if you will,” he said, referring to the region to watch.
Everhart predicts there will be further applications for the technology.
“Could you preposition cargo in space?” he mused. “Could you bring it down and place it where you want it to? I mean, there’s a whole lot of branches and sequels to this thing.
“I think any region would benefit with it,” including the U.S., Everhart added.
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