Here’s Why The USAF Is Suddenly Talking Cargo Drops From Space And Spying On Other Galaxies
As the push for a Space Force gains momentum, the service seems intent on showing it’s serious about space. Maybe too serious.
For better or worse, the idea of an independent Space Force seems to be gaining traction within the White House, in Congress, and even the halls of the Pentagon. The Air Force stands to lose the most in any such arrangement, so, perhaps not coincidentally, some members of the service’s senior leadership seem especially keen to show that they understand that space, and potential threats to American assets up there, is an important issue. But some of the statements these individuals have made, including the idea of prepositioning supplies in geosynchronous orbit or preparing to monitor activities in other galaxies, are highly unrealistic and difficult to view seriously.
On Aug. 3, 2018, our good friend Stephen Trimble, who is editor of Flightglobal's Americas Bureau, alerted us that the issue of watching for threats outside the Milky Way had come up in question and answer session with U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Veralinn Jamieson, the service’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, after her speech at an event the Air Force Association had hosted the day before. At a separate gathering, U.S. Air Force General Carlton Everhart, head of Air Mobility Command, had off-handedly raised the possibility of using space as a huge cargo dump.
The relevant portions of Trimble’s exchange with Jamieson, which he generously shared on Twitter, are worth reading in full:
Lieutenant General Jamieson: “I am convinced that there are more domains – man-made domains – that will come, and I would offer you that if we look at galaxies – sounds nuts – but there’s going to be a man-made domain in galaxies.”
FlightGlobal’s Stephen Trimble: “I don’t know what you mean – galaxies?”
Jamieson: “Space has got different galaxies. And in those galaxies in the future we’re going to actually have capability that we have right now in the air. We don’t know what it is because we haven’t freed our mind to think about what is that space and how we are going to utilize it. Space is contested. It’s going to happen.”
Trimble remains understandably baffled by what this was supposed to mean, as are we.
Let’s be perfectly clear, space does have lots of different galaxies and the space immediately above planet Earth is increasingly contested for military actors, something we at The War Zone
note routinely. It's also true that the nearest galaxy to our own, the Andromeda Galaxy, is 2.5 million light years away and that we still seem to be a ways off from being able to reliably and cost-effectively traveling to our planetary neighbor Mars, which is only 48 million normal Earth miles away from us, an infinitesimally shorter distance by comparison.
Despite vocal advocates to the contrary, there is little to no actual evidence that the technology that would be necessary to reach Andromeda, let along militarize it, has moved beyond the realm of science fiction. Worrying about how to monitor a “man-made domain” there isn’t even a long-term issue for a service that is still formalizing a plan for how it will replace its nearly 30-year-old E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) battlefield management aircraft and has even less of an idea of what to about its even more dated airliner-sized RC-135 family of spy planes – which was the crux of Trimble’s actual question to Jamieson.
These comments came after General Everhart had caused his own stir by mentioning that he had visited space launch firms SpaceX and Virgin Orbit and brought up the possibility of moving cargo and personnel from one point on Earth to another through space in the future. The officer said he hoped to find time to sit down with representatives from another company, Blue Origin, in the future to discuss this and other topics.
“Think about this. Thirty minutes, 150 metric tons, [and] less than the cost of a C-5 [cargo plane],” he said on Aug. 2, 2018. “I said, I need to get me some of that. How do I do that?”
That’s a good question and one that the Air Force, as well as other services, has been looking to answer since the very beginnings of the Space Race in the late 1950s. It’s become something of a holy grail over the decades.
It goes without saying that the ability to use space as a hypersonic transport route to rapidly deliver cargo and personnel could revolutionize routine operations and enable entirely new offensive and defensive strategies. But developing a system that works safely and reliability and is anywhere near fiscally feasible, let alone cheaper than traditional means of transportation, for any substantial volume of cargo, is a tall order. The idea of putting cargo-carrying satellites into orbit and being able to request an orbital supply drop at the touch of a button is even more fanciful.
“I think in the next five years we can be right in on that concept stage,” Everhart said. “Actual routine, probably within the next 10.”
The most recent formal U.S. military’s projects in this realm, the Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion program, or SUSTAIN, began in 2002 and received support from the U.S. Marine Corps. It was also purportedly “doable in 5-10 year timeframe” as of 2009. By the end of that year, the program was effectively dead.
Of course, since then, SpaceX, in particular, has made serious progress on reusable rocket boosters to help reduce costs and other companies are following suit. Congress is even mandating that the U.S. military consider a reusable option for every single launch in the future and submit a written report to lawmakers any time they choose an expendable launch vehicle that explaining why they did so.
SpaceX, as well as its competitors, is hoping to leverage that technology into cost-effective launch vehicles for planetary landers for a potential mission to Mars, which the U.S. military might be able to at least consider as an option for rapidly moving personnel and materiel around the Earth in the future. But there’s still no evidence yet that these are fiscally workable, especially for routine, day-to-day movements. How much might it cost, per round, to deliver just a load of standard 5.56mm rifle ammunition from orbit?
Just getting cargo deliveries to the International Space Station is an expensive undertaking, ranging broadly from $150 million to $250 million per launch. Satellites launches can be significantly cheaper, but also involve much lighter payloads than the military might be interested in.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is presently working on a proof of concept of a reusable space plane that might only cost $5 million per launch, but will be limited to a 3,000-pound payload. The Air Force has also been experimenting with the X-37B, another small space shuttle, for almost a decade now.
A C-5 Galaxy may cost more than $100,000 per hour to fly, but even on a 24-hour mission, that’s still an order of magnitude less expensive than most commercial space launches and half of the price that DARPA is aiming for with its program. A Galaxy can carry more than 450,000 pounds of cargo, too. The last cargo shipment to the ISS was less than 8,000 pounds and it was the largest load ever for Orbital ATK's Cygnus unmanned cargo spacecraft.
It is possible that space-based cargo operations could be useful to support short-notice, high-risk operations in unusual circumstances, such as resupplying a special operations team deep behind enemy lines on a mission vital to national security or inserting them there to begin with. But it's not at all clear that this would be more discreet and effective than other, more conventional options the Air Force is presently looking at or be worth the immense cost of maintaining this capability for those extremely rare situations, at all.
General Everhart seemed to be at least somewhat aware of these issues. Despite offering up a timeline, he also indicated he wasn’t sure regular space-based transportation missions would be viable any time soon.
“This is me thinking out loud,” he said. “I don’t know, I’m going to ask the industry…If you’ve got ideas, I’ll take them.”
We have no way of knowing whether these kinds of pronouncements about hyper-futuristic plans for the “space domain” will help the Air Force in its effort to quash the Space Force initiative, or at least garner a larger portion of it. The service’s opposition has infuriated the Space Force’s most vocal supporters in Congress and only pushed them to redouble their efforts and the Pentagon’s top leadership appears to be steadily changing its mind on the matter, too.
With President Donald Trump fully on board, that momentum is only building. None of this is to say the idea of a Space Force is necessarily good or bad. There are serious questions that remain unanswered about the proposal and it's unclear if the majority of Congress actually supports any of the plans that we know about so far.
The Air Force appears to have an increasingly real fear of getting left behind on space, though, and losing important parts of its budget and force structure in the process. Still, it seems hard to see how talking up concepts that sound ripped from a Hollywood blockbuster will help show that it not only understands what’s at stake in space and takes things seriously, but is still the right service to lead these efforts.
There are very real things the service is and needs to be doing in the near term to preserve its presence in space and expand it to respond to emerging challenges and threats. Defending against jamming, spoofing, and physical attacks on critical communications and intelligence satellites and increasing space-based networking, early warning, and intelligence gathering will only continue to be increasingly important issues in the coming years and ones that the Air Force use to highlight its existing role in space.
Whether the service can finally make space-based, hypersonic transportation affordable enough for large, routine deliveries after more than six decades of unsuccessfully attempting to do so would seem to be less of a priority. Whatever happens, it seems much more likely that we’ll see a separate branch of the U.S. military dedicated to activities in space before the Air Force, or any other service, ever has to worry about operations in other galaxies.
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