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Can rockets deliver supplies to war zones? Space Force, Air Force aim to find out

Rockets in an outdoor museum in Huntsville, Alabama. (Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

Will the U.S. Space Force’s mission someday include using rockets to supply troops in combat zones? A new effort announced by the Air Force Research Laboratory on Friday will begin to test what’s possible.

AFRL will look at whether reusable commercial rockets that can carry up to 100 tons of cargo could be used to deliver gear to a conflict in an hour or less. The Air Force is also considering using the rockets for humanitarian missions and disaster relief.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can put vehicles on a rocket, unload those vehicles, and go,” said Greg Spanjers, AFRL’s rocket cargo program manager.

It’s not the first time the Defense Department has considered using rockets for terrestrial delivery missions; U.S. Transportation Command is also looking at the idea. But large, reusable boosters developed by private firms, and China’s development of its own 100-ton capable rocket, have persuaded Air Force leaders to take their own new look.

“Note that 100 tons is about the size of a C-17 loadout,” Spanjers said. “So that’s when it starts getting interesting to DOD.”

Under the Rocket Cargo program, for which $47.9 million is being sought in the Air Force’s 2022 budget proposal, AFRL “will lead a science and technology effort to determine the viability and utility of using large commercial rockets for Department of Defense global logistics, potentially expanding the portfolio of capabilities the [U.S. Space Force] presents to combatant commanders.”

If Congress approves in the service’s RDT&E budget request, the program would aim to develop “novel loadmaster designs to quickly load/unload a rocket,” and the potential ability to airdrop payloads, according to the budget justification documents.

AFRL will not develop its own rocket but use commercial rockets already in production. It will work with the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center to determine how to configure and load shipping containers qualified for space flight.

The program would initially focus on port-to-port transfers of cargo, but could one day include manned missions that rapidly inject troops into a battlespace, depending on what the commercial sector can create, Spanjers said.

Once developed and if ultimately approved, the program would be transferred to the Space Force to operate.

“We want to be one of the first users in the early adopters of this capability,” Spanjers said.

Having a space-based way to inject supplies into a warzone or natural disaster area would ease the burden on U.S. Transportation Command, which has a limited number of aging airlift and sealift assets.

In May, three C-5 Super Galaxies and one C-17 Globemaster tasked with airlifting hundreds of ventilators and other critical COVID-19 gear to India were delayed due to maintenance issues; later that month, Aviation Week reported that the C-5 Galaxy daily flight rate was hovering at just 20 percent.

As commercial space launch capabilities have accelerated and prices have dropped, that option has become more attractive to the Defense Department.

“We see the commercial taking a lead and landing, frankly, on the Moon. And, you know, off-planet,” Spanjers said. “That means these rockets have to have the capability to do an austere landing and unload the cargo. Well, if they can land on those places, we’re interested in knowing to what extent we can extend that to a larger range of terrain, so that we can do immediate cargo transports to basically anywhere on the planet quickly without having to shift our transportation mode.”

The program is similar to cooperative research and development agreements, dubbed CRADA, that Transportation Command signed last year with SpaceX and xArc to test the feasibility of using rockets for cargo transport.

The AFRL program will be independent of the TRANSCOM effort, Spanjers said.

“CRADA won’t be a part of this program,” Spanjers said. “We’ll be issuing our own contracts in the very near future.”

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