Monday, June 7, 2021

A Rocket Story Getting Little Coverage

Last week, during a budget conference call, the Air Force let on that they're very interested in using rockets to deliver cargo around the world.  The linked article on Ars Technica says they're looking to fund $47.9 million.  Still a tiny fraction of their $200 billion budget, but real money to anyone who doesn't come from DC.

Military officials said they were elevating the cargo initiative to become the newest "Vanguard Program," indicating a desire to move the concept from an experimental state into an operational capability.

"This idea has been around since the dawn of spaceflight," said Dr. Greg Spanjers, an Air Force scientist and the Rocket Cargo Program Manager. "It's always been an intriguing idea. We've looked at it about every 10 years, but it's never really made sense. The reason we're doing it now is because it looks like technology may have caught up with a good idea."

It's worth assessing this sort of advance in cargo shipments in an era when there are several startup companies working to provide the next generation of supersonic passenger travel.  Companies like Boom, a company that just signed a contract with United Airlines to deliver 15 supersonic passenger jets by the end of the decade, Spike Aerospace, and Exosonic.  I would assume that cargo versions of these supersonic lawn darts are likely to be developed as well.  The difference is that the Air Force isn't talking about supersonic, they're talking about hypersonic. 

How fast are we talking?  As Dr. Spanjers said, "a rocket can get around the world in 90 minutes, and an airplane cannot."  Yes, that implies a delivery halfway around the world in 45 minutes.  About 95 percent of military supplies are delivered by commercial rail, airplane, and boat services, so this would be an extension of that logistics service.  It has long been a dream for the DOD to provide very rapid, point-to-point cargo delivery.  The best supersonic proposals shave hours off a 12 hour flight, but they don't cut it to 30 to 45 minutes.

Officials took pains during the call to not single out any one company as a potential provider of services. However, the grandiose aims of the rocket cargo program, seeking to move as much as 100 tons at a time, would seem to limit the number of potential suppliers. It points most directly to SpaceX and its under-development Starship capability. SpaceX has said it is capable of launching 100 tons to orbit and then vertically landing back on Earth.

"When a rocket can only launch, you know, a few 100 kilograms or maybe even 1,000 kilograms, it's interesting but not game changing," Spanjers said. "It's the fact that we're looking at commercial rockets out there that are in the 30 to 100 ton class."

He added that the military is interested in commercial rockets—that is, those built by industry, largely through private investment—that incorporate reuse to keep costs down. This would seem to limit the vendors in the near term to SpaceX and potentially Blue Origin, with its reusable New Glenn vehicle.

I have a hard time visualizing how they'd do it because I haven't paid much attention to how cargo gets into and out of one, but if Starship can deliver 100 tons across the planet, I understand an M1 Abrams tank weighs under 70 tons.  Starship could deliver that with some spare parts.    

I get the feeling from reading the interview with Dr. Spaniers that he was equal parts doing his best to not say, "we haven't said it's going to be SpaceX" and to recognize that other defense contractors might see how to do it, too.  While neither the Starship Superheavy combination nor the New Glenn have flown, Starship is clearly farther ahead in development, and both are ahead of anything else any other contractor has announced.  The budget document (pdf warning) says the Air Force doesn't intend to invest directly into the vehicle's development.  However, it proposes to fund science and technology needed to interface with the Starship vehicle so that the Air Force might leverage its capabilities. 

As they say, it's not a really new idea.  One comment at Ars Technica linked to this '60s concept art.

Perhaps another image from our youth will getting transformed into reality.


  1. Scott Manly covered this a few days ago.

    I think it's unlikely in the near term, but I haven't ruled it out entirely.

  2. Yes, there's a lot more involved to this concept than the basic "load it up and fly". This is a lot more complicated than loading a cooler in the trunk of your car and driving to the park. In my mind, it might be 90 minutes to fly to the other side of the world - after a month to plan the load, engineer the balance, clamps/bracing, actually load it, stage the rocket, fuel it and then hopefully launch and land it successfully.

    Myself, I still would keep the C130s and cargo ships around.

  3. Worse than pie in the sky dreaming, its plain and simple idiotic think they're going to lift this concept off the pages of a comic book to bring into realty.

    Entirely new infrastructure will have to be planned, built, maintained. At both ends. Very little of existing infrastructure can be utilized. Then once at the other end, then what? The other end becomes a locked in place distribution point. Infrastructure is not mobile.

    Even with advances in the requisite technologies, recent history is replete with failed examples of high speed delivery which depends upon route logistics and/or terminal facilities. This all sounds like some bird colonel making a career path in civilian life and using the U.S. taxpayer as funding source. Oh sure, lets talk about trickle down new applications of existing tech.

  4. Given merely the logistics, I dare say such a scheme will flounder in the competition to out perform deliver by existing airframes. Which, by the way, can deliver to literally any point in the world.

  5. Given the failure rate of rockets getting someone to insure the cargo is probably going to be impossible.

    1. Satellites are insured. This is not a problem.

    2. Uh huh.

      And you figure State farm is going to pick up a policy on a battalion armored task force?

      Sh'yeah, as if.

      Call me when the price per pound is less tallies up to less than the entire pentagon budget for a year, with a delivery probability in the high 90th percentile.

      Spitballing, but that should be around the twelfth of Never.

      But like the lottery, it's fun to dream.

      BTW, the enemy gets a vote.

      The minute this has any military application in reality, rocket launching ceases to be a permissive environment. So when anti-rocket missiles take out 80% of your launch vehicles with 1990s technology, it's a lot less fun to try it.

      this is an idea from the people who brought you this:
      "If businesses would switch to computers, think how much they'd save by going totally paperless with all their documentation." - 1960s-era sales schmuck

      When I get my jetpack and flying car, we can start talking about rocket delivery of anything military beside warheads.

  6. I don't see it being used for an M1 Abrams, but attack drones, specialist personnel, medical supplies and maybe even patients, small encapsulated cargo (with a slide chute like for escaping from an airliner) are all very very very doable.

    A great way to get a captured high value target out of an area.

  7. I don't think this would be used to go "anywhere", but rather to established forward bases where the infrastructure has been built to refuel. Of course, if it were critical in an existential war, you'd just leave it there and grab another one.

  8. 100 tons. Thats 800 armed soldiers weighing 250lbs each fully loaded or a battlion. Or over 7 million rnds of 5.56. Or 3 Bradley’s.

    Its an interesting concept. The naysayers of this idea would have said 25 years ago the same of what SpaceX has achieved today.

    Musk has built the technology and proven it can be done. So its not so farfetched as the technology currently exists. But should a mishap ocurr with 800 men on board, thats a significant single event loss of human life that even in wartime would not be acceptable.

    1. Once again:

      We're talking military applications. Theoretical thought exercises are meaningless.

      What you can do when no one's shooting at you pales into insignificance compared to what you can actually pull off when they are.

      Do this in a fully non-permissive environment, and get back to us.
      That's the difference between sales brochures based upon vaporware, and real-world performance.

      If you can put 100 tons of payload somewhere, you're going to have to start with warheads, and lots of them, or else you're just sending lambs to the slaughter, the comic book exploits of Buck Rogers notwithstanding.

    2. Pardon me if not having spent any time in the military ruins my perspective, but do C-17s, C-5s, and the other cargo planes get shot down all the time? I don't seem to recall hearing that.

      I don't really see the difference. A cargo plane comes in horizontally, descending fairly slowly from cruising altitude to land, while I think the descending rocket would have a smaller amount of travel at low altitudes. I have read of cargo planes descending in a tight spiral. The cargo plane would seem to make a better target than something approaching vertically, go into a belly flop, then flip upright and use rocket engines to land.

      Agreed that modern Surface to Air Missiles should be able to shoot down anything flying in, but I really see no difference between cargo planes and rockets. Again, not having worked in that world, I just may not understand.

    3. SiG,

      1) Once again, C-17s and C-5s only work in permissive airspace. As in "in the rear, with the gear", and nothing hostile and threat-capable for dozens to hundreds of miles. C-130s and AC-130s, against far-from-peer adversaries and in contested airspace, tend to take quite a beating.

      We lost a SpecOps Chinook full of SEALs to goatherders with RPGs. Multiple millions of dollars apiece invested to train each DevGru SEAL and SpecOps pilot, X 8+8, plus a $30M dollar airframe, for the price of a $300 rocket.
      Even Hadji can do that math, all day long.

      2) Let me know the cost-per-pound for rocket delivery to a rear area, vs. for a C-5 or C-17, both far from any front lines or contested airspace, and then make a case for why and under what circumstances you'd need the rocket express. I'm thinking that anyplace where time is that critical is exactly someplace where you don't have any sort of air superiority, and if you did have that, then why bother with a rocket in the first place? Catch-22.

      3) Then factor in a cost-per-platform, and whether it's anticipated to be a reusable asset, or intended to be expendable, and once again, do an apples-to-apples comparison between that cost vs. cargo aircraft used solely in permissive air environments, which a/c tend to last for decades if treated properly.

      4) I'm open to counter-argument based on actual data, but absent that, it's a potential capability in search of a reason, based on a highly dubious premise. Cool? Buck Rogers? Check and double-check.
      Practical and useful? Not very likely. Economically sound? Almost certainly not.

      What Elon can pull off on pre-surveyed spots in Texas or Miami Beach on a clear sunny day is not the same thing he'll find easy on a dark and stormy night in some Trashcanistan or Shitholia, which is the entire problem the minute we add the "military" preface. Well, except for the theoretically critical men and equipment riding on the notional rockets, hoping to land at a speed conducive to military utility, unless we're anticipating recruiting kamikazes. At which point, we're better off sending a payload of warheads, not warriors.

      5) Once you start launching rockets intercontinentally at enemy territory, at least 7 other known nuclear powers start getting itchy, and warming up certain assets in their silos. Next thing you know, people are fighting in the War Room, and we've got a Mineshaft Gap. "Mein führer, I can walk!"

      So this makes no sense, economically nor tactically, probably isn't useful, and likely isn't something we should want to go fooling around with, for all those reasons.

      But sure as God made little green apples, you go and build one, and some dipshit with stars on his shoulders will want to go using it, and we'll all get to find out in about 30 minutes afterwards how good or bad an idea it was all along.

      I've seen the Pentagon brain trust in action for decades, including up close, and it's no accident that "military intelligence" heads the all-time list of great oxymorons.

      I don't think you want to put any more eggs in that basket than you absolutely have to do.

      Just saying.

    4. I did some searching around the web on "cargo plane shot down" and found references to isolated incidents but nothing very widespread. I know about Extortion 17 (losing the "SpecOps Chinook full of SEALs to goatherders with RPGs.") and have blogged about it a few times. I absolutely don't think that's the sort of mission being envisioned.

      I don't see them using this the way you're thinking of it.

      First off, anybody with half a brain (average Pentagon brain trust) has to realize that sending supplies by FedUPS (by which I mean any conventional carrier) is going to be cheaper. The source article says they use common carriers extensively today. Even if Musk gets the price to orbit down to the kind of numbers talked about out there for Starship, it's still cheaper to send stuff by the equivalent of cargo container ships and the Air Force's own cargo fleet of C-5s and C-17s. Pretty much any way is going to be cheaper than this.

      So what's left? This approach sounds to me like they're going to use it to well-controlled areas, like airports, very far from the front lines. They're going to have to use airports with the infrastructure to refuel the thing to send back home. In this case, if they needed to send something to Afghanistan, they won't send it to Bagram, they'll send it someplace a thousand miles from there.

      It just seems that when you add it all up it has to be the last resort, sort of, "when it absolutely, positively has to be there right freakin' now." If they're going to send a cargo rocket to the front lines without a way to refuel it, they have to know they're throwing it out. Yeah, I know the Washington/Pentagon speak, "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money," but cost has to get looked at.

      Another way of looking at the situation is that their logistics guys failed if they need to use a rocket to get something from the CONUS to another part of the world.

    5. Fair enough, but the 90:10 rule applies.
      They'll spend 10% of the time getting something 90% of the way, then spend 90% of the time getting it the other 10%.

      Net result: exact same transport time as all-conventional, at a higher overall cost, and orders of magnitude more complexity.

      Which doesn't just make it likely the Pentagon will use it, it's almost a stone-carved certainty.

      This, from the people who brought you the LCS, the Ford, the F-35 Thunderjug, and "diversity is our strength".

      We're f**ked.