Spacelift: USTRANSCOM, Space Force, and the Irresistible Rise of True Rapid Mobility

Nov 3, 2020 | Defense Transportation Journal, DTJ Online

At the 2020 NDTA-USTRANSCOM Fall Meeting, GEN Steve Lyons announced that USTRANSCOM and SpaceX would begin to study reusable rockets for military logistics. The gravity of this announcement is difficult to overstate. A fourth mode of transportation is entering the market to compete with ground, sealift, and airlift. Terrestrial Spacelift uses cost-effective, reusable rockets to move personnel and freight across the globe via orbital launch. For example, a terrestrial Spacelift launch from Washington, DC, to Beijing should take approximately 28 minutes to reach its destination. With only a 30-minute warning, massive enemy forces could arrive on almost any doorstop in the world. This application is not merely theoretical; the technology is already in use as Falcon 9 rockets launch and recover with cargo dozens of times a year. Now, with China, Russia, India, the European Union (EU), and others developing far larger reusable rockets, Spacelift economics are poised to reshape the defense logistics industry within the next three years.

Although the Space Shuttle demonstrated that reusable rockets could launch and land cargo to and from space as early as the 1980s, the economics were still beyond all but the largest national and multinational budgets. These costs prohibited logistics through space until 2015 when the Falcon 9 brought launch costs down from $1.6 billion to $62 million per launch. Now, dozens of US companies have begun to enter this market and are likely to bring costs under $3 million per launch. The two frontrunners in the US market are on-schedule to launch high-capacity versions of their rockets by 2021 (Blue Origin) and 2022 (SpaceX), with commercial flights no later than 2023.

Starship, by SpaceX, demonstrates how quickly this technology is becoming economical. Starship is a sleek, hulking spacecraft based on the Falcon-9 and slated to carry up to 150 short tons of cargo per launch. Using materials like stainless steel instead of expensive carbon-fiber, SpaceX aims to produce each Starship vehicle for only $5 million. Even at $50 million per Starship, the cost will be far less per vehicle than an aircraft with similar cargo capacity like the Boeing 737-MAX. To achieve this price-point, SpaceX is building a megafactory to produce these massive ships at a rate of one new vehicle every 72 hours. This ambitious production rate is approximated already by preproduction prototypes, which are manufactured, tested, and reiterated in only weeks.  Once the final Starships begin to exit the megafactory, they should fly their 150-ton capacity three times per day, per vehicle.  At the promised rate of production and flight by 2024, there may be hundreds of Starships in operation, making thousands of flights per year—and this represents only one company’s contribution to this newest logistics modality.

There are hundreds of small launch companies entering the market. Blue Origin, Amazon’s sister company, has developed and demonstrated reusable rocket technology with its New Shepard vehicle. Now, their New Glenn platform offers at least 25 consecutive launches of 45 tons at a time. New Glenn will have more capacity per launch than two C-130 aircraft on the market by 2021.  Smaller companies, such as Astra, are promising thousands of annual launches with their launch schedules.

Once larger reusable rockets enter the market next year, the price-per-launch will be comparable to airlift.  Projected costs for a two-way return flight might cost only $1.5M million per launch, including fuel.  Comparing this to the 24-hour operating costs of a comparable commercial airliner at $670K, Spacelift can buy 10x faster transportation speeds for roughly 2.5x the price.  Compared to military airlift, a reusable rocket can deliver more cargo than the Air Force’s largest aircraft—the venerable C-5 (140 tons) or almost two C-17s (85 tons)—at speeds that eclipse the SR-71. If USTRANSCOM and SpaceX do not find a way forward, peer nations certainly will.

China has made rapid strides to accelerate and perhaps overtake the US in reusable rocketry. In September, China successfully tested its first reusable space vehicle. Now, their Long March 9 rocket system is poised to offer a 140-ton capacity reusable rocket as early as 2021. The Russian LAROS RN-2, Angara-A5M, and the newly announced Amur-SPG will enter operations by 2026. The EU’s most successful rocket company, ArianeGroup, is working on its reusable rocket vehicle modeled after SpaceX. Even smaller space industries are joining in the race for Spacelift. Japan’s JAXA and Mitsubishi are working together, and India has already demonstrated a reusable rocket with their RLV-TD. With established technology at economical costs being developed worldwide, the question is not if this will revolutionize the defense logistics industry, but by how much?

Like the airplane, the steam engine, or the cannon, Spacelift aligns the technology, economy, and conceptual frameworks that constitute what historians call a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The use cases for rapid logistics via space are extensive. These include decisive strategic advantages in conventional warfare, unconventional warfare, and support operations.

Conventional warfare is the most apparent use-case for terrestrial Spacelift. A nation using a squadron of only 12 Starship-like vehicles could move 700 personnel and 750 tons of cargo at a time. This translates into two battalions of Army mechanized infantry or one standard battalion of Marines being able to “drop” onto any suitable point on the globe within an hour. In the Pacific, places like Guam, Wake, Taiwan, or South China Sea islands could be threatened by mass and surprise, with global implications. The first nation to utilize multiple squadrons could achieve decisive effects. In a protracted war, the US might detect a launch of 100 Spacelift vehicles, but there could be no comprehensive denial of landings across 3.5 million square miles of the US. Landings could be as far-reaching as Washington, DC, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado, Montana, Alaska, or Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean. If Spacelift vehicles included anti-air batteries, they could become deeply intractable wherever they land. In conventional warfare, Spacelift provides the threat and opportunity for hundreds of little Normandy’s with Pearl Harbor-like results.

Spacelift is equally compelling when applied to unconventional warfare scenarios. The US could effectively respond to any Benghazi-like scenario by posturing a rapid response team in the CONUS [Continental United States].

Spacelift is equally compelling when applied to unconventional warfare scenarios. The US could effectively respond to any Benghazi-like scenario by posturing a rapid response team in the CONUS [Continental United States]. Like Global Strike, one or two response teams in the US could respond with forces to almost any upheaval at any embassy or Forward Operating Base (FOB) worldwide with mass and security until airlift can arrive. As we saw in Libya or Somalia, crash recovery behind enemy lines would be a far faster prospect with a Spacelift-inserted security team. Even without airdrop mechanisms from Spacelift vehicles, a $5 million vehicle is a small price to insert a team behind enemy lines. Agile Combat Support—rapid basing of small forces—could enable forces to open airfields and deposit forces overnight via Contingency Response Wings (CRW) or their Space Force equivalent. Irregular warfare would take a different shape with Spacelift making the most rapid mobility possible.

The final use-cases are the support functions that are the most immediately feasible with Spacelift assets operating between two-way Main Operating Bases (MOBs). Aeromedical Evacuation could be significantly simplified with one-hour evacuations from Bagram to Walter Reed Medical Center. Spacelift would dramatically decrease the chain of medical staff and standby aircraft that currently populates en route locations to stabilize patients. This same logistics efficiency could produce point-of-need delivery of sensitive medical resupply for blood and pharmaceuticals, especially as smaller Spacelift vessels enter routine use. Even in non-medical use-cases, the rapid delivery of mission-capable parts to stranded aircraft and ships would significantly improve mission-capable rates, as delivery speeds alone can make outsized impacts on mission-capable rates. The ability to cut shipment speeds of critical repair parts by 24 hours for broken ships and aircraft will save the government millions and increase mission readiness. The routine use of Spacelift, even when not actively used for combat operations in conventional warfare, unconventional warfare, and support missions—to say nothing of humanitarian response—are highly varied and strategically compelling today.

General Lyons described how “very very rapidly” SpaceX was progressing with this technology. With USTRANSCOM’s new partnership with SpaceX and the recent AFWERX “Global Space Transport and Delivery Challenge,” the defense transportation industry is beginning to engage with this revolutionary new transportation mode. As Spacelift comes online globally, defense logistics agencies must proactively develop this cross-section between space and logistics technology to prepare for these vehicles’ imminent deployment. Dedicating intellectual and manpower resources in 2020 can prevent US forces across the joint enterprise from being caught off-guard as peer nations begin to build-up this strategic technology. USTRANSCOM, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), and the US Space Force should target completion of three major objectives by 2021:

  1. Establish which Space Force Field Command will provide Spacelift logistics to USTRANSCOM
  2. Organize training and develop support technologies that will best adapt Spacelift to the warfighter
  3. Develop and outline the theories and doctrines of Spacelift and its use in the joint domain

Establish a Space Force Field Command to provide Spacelift to USTRANSCOM
Each transportation mode currently has a service component that provides commercial and military lift in their domain to the functional combatant command of USTRANSCOM. For sealift, Military Sealift Command (MSC) slowly and economically offers bulk cargo transportation. For ground transportation, the Army’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC) provides strategic rail, road, pipeline, and port transportation. Finally, the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC) administers the air domain, formerly the most rapid global mobility option. A component for space assets must be established that understands, develops, and administers Spacelift assets to support USTRANSCOM.

A fourth Field Command within Space Force is the natural place for this component. It could be called Extratheater Spacelift Command (ESC), or any number of alternatives, to describe the unique new role of space in intertheater, intratheater, and now extratheater transportation. Whatever it is called, establishing this command as early as 2021 would allow the organizational structure to develop alongside our commercial technology partners. This would enable USTRANSCOM to support the Spacelift component by providing demand signals of the fastest priority cargo, contracting expertise, and more to establish the new transportation paradigm.

Organize and train to systems that will best adapt Spacelift to the warfighter.
Beyond organizational structures, today’s cadre of aerospace logistics professionals must work together to understand and build-out the supplies, equipment, personnel, and support functions of Spacelift.

Supply concerns for Spacelift will first include the staging of Petroleums, Oils, and Lubrication for the new vehicles. Fuel stations will be needed at every two-way destination. This is manageable today, as a known blend of methane and oxidizer is being used by SpaceX to achieve affordable and carbon-neutral rocket fuel. However, other companies may develop different fuels. Without common standards, as we see with Jet-A1 on aircraft, a complex library of fuels might emerge to support Spacelift, making readiness prohibitively expensive. The DLA’s J3 should develop Spacelift fuel standards, identify suppliers, and localized testing with contracted companies that could support predetermined supply points for storage, pipeline, and sealifted fuel resupply concepts.

Spacelift will also require staging and landing support equipment. For routine use, landing pads will need to be constructed and may require specialized ground response vehicles and “restacking” equipment for return flights. An agency to develop and purchase this equipment must be considered, likely as an element of Space Force. Finally, if cargo cannot be made “roll-on/roll-off,” the speed advantages of Spacelift could be diminished. Therefore, as the 463L pallet standardized airlift transportation, similar intermodality of containers and pallets must be researched and developed with these new vehicles.

With deliberate organization and forethought on the appropriate training, tactics, techniques, and procedures, Spacelift can begin without relearning all of the hard-won lessons from airlift.

Personnel supporting Spacelift must have logistics expertise, a function for the Space Force that is still retained exclusively by the Air Force. A minimally operational ESC within Space Force will require load specialists, refuelers, spacecraft maintainers, software specialists, and administrative staff. Space Force should consider assembling an initial cadre of senior logisticians in these areas to advise specialist development for space logisticians. With deliberate organization and forethought on the appropriate training, tactics, techniques, and procedures, Spacelift can begin without relearning all of the hard-won lessons from airlift.

Finally, systems for commercial support and use of civilian space vehicles must be established, as it will likely take years before the Space Force acquires a fleet of its own Spacelift assets. Sealift has MSC and the Merchant Marine, a fleet of commercial ships with its own academy of civilian specialists. AMC has the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) commercial carrier program, allowing the Air Force to contract or commandeer commercial airliners in a major war. USTRANSCOM and Space Force must establish critical contracts with SpaceX, Blue Origin, Astra, or any other viable service provider before the need becomes urgent.

Develop and test the theory and doctrine of Spacelift and its use in the joint domain
The final action that should be taken involves the dedication of intellectual resources to the development and test of Spacelift theory and doctrine. This article has used terms like terrestrial Spacelift, Extratheater Spacelift Command (ESC), space maintainers, and more to describe new technologies, while USTRANSCOM has used cargo-through-space in other instances. These may not be the right terms or constructs for this technology, and the terms themselves are being assembled by “airminded” logisticians, not “spaceminded” ones. New ideas require new approaches uninhibited by current paradigms, and many unanswered questions must be explored through doctrinal think-tanks. How will the cyber domain threaten or enhance Spacelift? Will weather limit operations? Can austere landings occur soon? If not, what does airdrop look like from a space vehicle? Can roll-off anti-air batteries be emplaced on these vehicles? And are we ready for them?

There are greater undiscovered strategies and efficiencies to be uncovered by dialogue and exploration of Spacelift as a concept, but the technology is already here. USTRANSCOM, US Space Force, DLA, AFMC, and the logistics community at large have an opportunity to establish the theories, doctrines, and agencies for transportation through the space domain. A revolution in transportation logistics is underway whether we are ready or not; we should consider this our 30-minute warning.


By David A. Martin, Logistics Readiness Officer, Headquarters Air Force Materiel Command

Photo: Starship, first test vehicle. Photo courtesy SpaceX Flickr Photostream.

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