The Pentagon is working with Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to investigate the possibility of using the company’s rockets to drop troops and equipment into flashpoints around the world.
The military’s collaboration with private space companies covers a wide range of research programs, according to a partially edited research agreement originally obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request and made public on June 19.
The Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (pdf) outlines a joint effort by the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and SpaceX to “cooperate to research commercial space transportation capabilities as a means of transportation to expedite the global delivery of Department of Defense (DoD) materials and personnel.”
U.S. Transportation Command is one of the Army’s unified combatant commands. It meets the military’s transportation needs and relies heavily on commercial infrastructure and technology to carry out its mission of projecting and sustaining military power.
Military programs are increasingly leaning toward leveraging commercial-first space technology in order to translate it for military use at a much lower cost than if the military could research and develop its own technology from scratch.
One of the expected outcomes of the research agreement is a rocket-based “rapid reaction force” that can deploy troops or equipment anywhere in the world in short order by utilizing SpaceX’s Starship, a fully reusable super-heavy delivery vehicle Rocket, currently in development.
The Department of Defense believes that Starship’s fully integrated and reusable launch and landing system could be ready between 2025 and 2030, considering some very specific scenarios for using the technology.
“Rapid theater direct delivery capabilities from the U.S. to bare bases in Africa will prove extremely important in supporting the State Department’s mission in Africa,” the agreement said.
“Demonstrate the ability of PTP [Point-to-Point] Space transportation could deter aggressive actions by non-state actors against the United States. “
The not-so-subtle idea that the U.S. military could send troops to Africa via rockets was picked up by The Intercept, which the company says is to use militarized starships to strengthen besieged complexes.
Despite the sci-fi overtones of the proposed project, the Rocket Force has long been on the Defense Department’s radar.
Back in 1964, the proposed “Ithacus” project (pdf) proposed “One concept for one rocket power force transportation which possible Potential develop from This Can be reused booster of tomorrow.“
The project seeks to envision a future in which rocket technology, chosen by the military as a battalion-level troop transport, can quickly respond to a crisis anywhere in the world within an hour.
Fast-forward 60 years, and military leadership believes that vision is on the way with the prospect of applying SpaceX technology to modern warfare problems.
“For the past 75 years or so, we’ve been limited to about 40,000 feet and 600 miles per hour, our fastest logistical delivery method — airlift,” said the then deputy commander of U.S. Transportation Command. Dee Mewbourne in 2020.
“Now, with a desperate need for support on the other side of the world, how likely is it to achieve logistics at about 10 times these numbers? It’s time to understand how our current strategy for projecting and sustaining forces evolves with new modes of transportation already.”
Still, space-based Marines and Rockets are unlikely to reach the battlefield anytime soon, given the various technical and legal challenges that the armed forces have to travel through space and airspace.
Nonetheless, the agreement points to two other key scenarios that would benefit from the technology.
The first is to provide extremely vulnerable bases within range of enemy missiles. The second is to provide logistical support to create a deployable air base system that would help U.S. forces in conflict zones establish fully operational forward bases to provide force projection in areas that do not have a permanent presence.
Notably, each scenario would meaningfully enhance the ability of the United States to conduct amphibious and island-hopping warfare in the event of a potential conflict with Communist China.