When it comes to American military hardware, the data provided in the yearly budget estimates of the US Air Force (USAF) are the perfect fodder for both analysis and speculation.
The figures for the fiscal year 2022, which were revealed in the first week of June 2021, provided several talking points that gained prominence in global bulletins. This included news of the impending collaboration of USAF with Elon Musk’s fan-favorite venture, SpaceX. Specifically, the supposed plan to use the Starship rocket as an intercontinental cargo vehicle, which seems like something conceived specifically to garner attention.
According to the estimates, the Department of Defense (DoD) intends to invest $47.9 million into this new and exciting idea, which promises to deliver heavy payloads anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes. While it’s not excessively largescale, the investment does show that the military sees potential there. But why?
The document states that the goal of the program is “to leverage the current multi-billion-dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever, and with full reusability to develop and test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver AF cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity”.
While the description does not refer to SpaceX, there is only one company with a multi-billion-dollar stake in the “largest rocket ever”. Additionally, SpaceX has widely advertised the idea of using its new creation for “earth-to-earth”, which would be as convenient as regular commercial aircraft, but with the added benefit of speeds above Mach 20. Its connection with USAF’s idea is rather clear.
Also, the DoD has confirmed the connection numerous times. In October 2020, the US Transportation Command revealed that two companies, SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc), are selected to conduct research on point-to-point rocket travel. While the program was separate from USAF’s, it does show that the military sees SpaceX as a prime partner for the job.
Throughout the year SpaceX was expected to perform some version of “proof of principle” experimentation for the Transportation Command. It is entirely possible that the test flights of the Starship prototypes doubled as exactly that. The role of XArc was not revealed, but the company specializes in space-oriented buildings, such as spaceports and planetary bases. It may be tasked with the development of infrastructure needed for the rocket transports.
In late 2020, XArc also produced a piece of glorious concept art, which depicted SpaceX Starships landing in a dramatically lit jungle. The cargo bay of the vehicle in the foreground is open and the air is full of large quadcopters transporting camouflaged shipping containers.
For some, the picture may be reminiscent of something they’ve already seen. A version of the artwork has already been produced back in the 1960s but portrayed jeeps and jetpack-equipped soldiers rather than of drones.
Icarus, Ithacus and beyond
While the Rocket Cargo project looks to be inspired by a Sci-Fi novel, it is, in fact, a direct continuation of the US Military’s seven-decades-long dream to utilize space rockets in logistics. First proposed in the 50s by Werhner von Braun, the godfather of the American space program, it felt achievable within the span of a generation.
By the early 60s the concept turned into a tangible idea: Project Icarus (later renamed into Ithacus), which was spearheaded by engineer Philip Bono of Douglas Aircraft.
The design went through several iterations, changing hands, names and the number of stages. At its boldest, it envisioned a 64 meter (209 ft) tall single-stage rocket with a payload capacity of 450 tons, close to five times the possible payload of the SpaceX Starship. It would be able to deliver a detachment of 1200 so-called ‘rocket marines’ with their gear and supplies (and jetpacks) to any point on the planet by flying just beyond the edge of the atmosphere and landing vertically, if needed, in the thick of a battle.
The program ran for several years before being withdrawn. Many of its descriptions, which can be traced on the internet, tend to suggest that the program was entirely feasible, even with technology available in the 1960s. The reason for its downfall was, supposedly, something entirely unrelated.
That reason was quite simple indeed. A launch of such a rocket would be virtually indistinguishable from the launch of a nuclear strike, a fatal flaw in the context of the Cold War. Presumably not intended to be used after the nuclear Armageddon, it was possible that, while conducting a simple resupply mission, it could be inadvertently triggered by the Ithacus. And so, the project was shelved.
Needless to say, the project would have been absurdly expensive. A 1964 feasibility study estimates the seat/mile cost as being nearly 300 times larger than that of contemporary cargo aircraft. Judging by the fact that the study is also incredibly generous in other respects (it estimates the development cost of the rocket at $5 to $6 million, approximately $50 million in today’s dollars), the actual costs would probably have been even higher.
Which brings us to the question: why is the same idea now being contemplated? And why is it even considered possible?
What can SpaceX make differently?
The simple answer lies in its description. The company already seems well on its way to complete the development of a successful intercontinental rocket transport system and the military would simply adapt that product for appropriate use.
While that would do nothing to mitigate the monstrous estimated operational costs of the vehicle, the development costs would be miniscule in comparison with the program from the 60s. It also eliminates the many risks associated with novel technology.
But what about the major concern about nuclear Armageddon?
On the surface the threat appears as relevant as ever, especially with mounting international tensions. But if we take a closer look at the current climate, alongside assessing the possible use of the cargo rocket, we can see that the claim no longer holds much weight.
The image of rocket marines descending into the thick of a local conflict seemed to be the driving force behind the Ithacus project. In such circumstances, with the marines acting as paratroopers, both secrecy and the element of surprise would have been paramount. Notifying the potential adversary that the launch is a part of an invasion of some third country rather than an all-out nuclear attack, would be inconceivable.
Currently, the situation is far different. For one, it would be impossible to use Starship as an invasion platform, mostly due to high effectiveness and proliferation of powerful anti-air weaponry. Even non-state actors would make short work of the rocket had it attempted to land in an active warzone. So, the platform would be dedicated purely to logistics, landing only in non-contested spaces.
Also, despite the tensions, a global war against a near-peer adversary is only one of possible conflict scenarios and notifying China and Russia about the launch of a rocket resupply mission bound for Afghanistan is not absurd. An appropriate communication channel is all it takes to avoid mistaking an unscheduled launch of a lone rocket for a nuclear strike.
Of course, there are plenty of other difficulties that would need to be ironed out if the US military wants such a system to work. But that is exactly the reason the current program is limited by investigation and assessment. USAF has already allocated $9.7 million to research in its FY2021 budget. The near fivefold rise in its financing between FY 2021 and FY 2022 merely reflects that the initial results were satisfactory.
The potential marked by these results is not only revealed by the budgetary increase, but by the status of the program, too. On June 4, 2021, the USAF declared the Rocket Cargo as the fourth Vanguard program, which puts the project in line with the much-discussed development of loyal wingman drones (Skyborg), the Golden Horde swarming munitions program and the development of a new, hyper-advanced navigation satellite.
Now, it appears that the program, which is operated separately from the investments made by the Transportation Command but jointly with the Space Force, is being taken far more seriously. Which is interesting, considering it was originally dismissed as a novel, crazy idea.
In fact, if SpaceX’s claims about the potential of the Starship are even partially true, it is not difficult to see how the military would jump at the opportunity to exploit it.