The Pentagon is collaborating with SpaceX, the company of Elon Musk, to study the possibility of using the company’s rockets to drop troops and equipment on conflict zones around the world.
The Army’s work with the private space company spans a wide range of research initiatives, according to a partially drafted research agreement originally obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request and made public on June 19.
The Research and Development Cooperation Agreement ( pdf ) outlines the joint efforts of the US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and SpaceX “to collaboratively investigate commercial space transportation capabilities as a mode of transportation to accelerate worldwide delivery of Department of Defense (DoD) materiel and personnel”.
USTRANSCOM is one of the Army’s Unified Combatant Commands. It serves the transportation needs of the military and relies heavily on commercial infrastructure and technology to carry out its mission of projecting and sustaining military power.
Military projects increasingly tend to exploit commercial space technologies in order to convert them to military use at a much lower cost than if the military had to research and develop its own technologies from scratch.
Among the expected outcomes of the research agreement is a rocket-based ‘quick reaction force’ that would place troops or equipment anywhere in the world, on short notice, using SpaceX’s Starship , a fully reusable super-heavy launch vehicle currently under development.
The Department of Defense estimates that Starship’s fully integrated, reusable launch and landing system could be ready between 2025 and 2030, and it has very specific scenarios in mind for using this technology.
“A rapid and direct delivery capability from the United States to an African bare base would be extremely important to support the State Department’s mission in Africa,” the agreement reads.
“The ability to demonstrate PTP [point-to-point] space transportation could deter non-state actors from committing aggressive acts toward the United States. »
The not-so-subtle idea that the US military could send troops to Africa on a rocket was picked up by The Intercept, which called the idea a point-blank effort to thwart “a future Benghazi-style attack.” using militarized spaceships to reinforce beleaguered compounds.
Despite the sci-fi overtones of the proposed project, rocket-based troops have long been in the Department of Defense’s crosshairs.
In 1964, the “Ithacus” project ( pdf ) presented “a concept of a rocket troop transport which could evolve from the reusable booster of tomorrow”.
This project aimed to visualize a future in which rocket technologies would be co-opted by the military for use as battalion-sized troop transports capable of rapidly responding to crises anywhere in the world within an hour.
60 years later, military officials believe that vision is coming to fruition with the prospect of applying SpaceX technologies to the problems of modern warfare.
“For the past 75 years, we have been limited to an altitude of approximately 12,000 meters and a speed of 1,000 km/h in our fastest method of logistics delivery, air transport,” the commander said . then USTRANCOM Deputy Dee Mewbourne in 2020.
“Now, what are the possibilities for logistical execution at about 10 times those numbers, when the need for support on the other side of the world is urgent? It’s time to learn how our current force projection and support strategies can evolve with a new mode of transportation. »
Still, space-based marines and riflemen are unlikely to hit the battlefield in the near future, given the various technical and legal conundrums involved in traversing space and airspace. with armed troops.
Nevertheless, the agreement mentions two other key scenarios that could benefit from this technology.
The first is to provide extremely vulnerable bases that are within missile range of hostile forces.
The second is to provide logistical support to establish air-deployable air base systems, which would help U.S. forces in conflict zones establish fully operational forward bases to ensure force projection in areas without permanent presence.
Notably, each of these scenarios would significantly increase the ability of the United States to conduct amphibious and insular warfare in a potential conflict with Communist China.