The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) plans to issue a solicitation soon on a new Department of the Air Force Vanguard program–Rocket Cargo, a science and technology (S&T) effort to explore the feasibility of delivering 100 tons of cargo anywhere on the globe within an hour.

The fiscal 2022 budget request contains $47.9 million for Rocket Cargo.

U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) has also been mulling the possibility of rocket deliveries of a Boeing [BA] C-17’s worth of cargo and has planned to hold a proof of principle with SpaceX, likely with a variant of SpaceX’s two-stage Starship launch vehicle, as early as this year (Defense Daily, Oct. 7, 2020). Last year, TRANSCOM entered a cooperative research and development agreement with SpaceX and Texas-based Exploration Architecture Corporation.

While TRANSCOM has spoken of the rocket delivery concept as avoiding the diplomatic negotiations required for traditional access basing and overflight, rocket deliveries would come with their own drawbacks, such as making sure that other nations know that the deliveries are of cargo, not missiles.

Concerning the “Rocket Cargo” Vanguard program, “the Department of the Air Force seeks to leverage the current multi-billion dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever, and with full reusability to develop and test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver AF [Air Force] cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity,” per the fiscal 2022 budget request. “The Air Force is not investing in the commercial rocket development, but rather investing in the Science & Technology needed to interface the capability with DoD logistics needs, and extend the commercial capability to DoD-unique missions. Provides a new, faster and cheaper solution to the existing TRANSCOM Strategic Airlift mission. Enables AFSOC [Air Force Special Operations Command] to perform current Rapid-Response Missions at lower cost, and meet a one-hour response requirement.”

In 2018, then-head of Air Mobility Command  Gen. Carlton Everhart II said that the command had begun looking at prepositioning cargo in space within 10 years (Defense Daily, Aug. 2, 2018). But that expensive prepositioning met with criticism and has apparently evolved into the new Rocket Cargo concept of launch and deliver on demand.

The concept of rocket delivery of cargo has been around since the 1950s, but lower, commercial launch costs, reusable launch vehicles, and higher rocket payloads have recently made the idea more palatable to the Department of the Air Force.

“I had that discussion with Gen. Everhart and a number of other senior Air Force leaders, and I was frankly one of the scoffers at the time because we’ve looked at this for many decades, and it’s never made sense,” Gregory Spanjers, the Rocket Cargo program manager at AFRL, told reporters on June 4. “But there are some key things here that have changed. If you have a very large rocket, the fact that we’re looking at rockets with 30 to 100 ton potential capacity, it starts getting very interesting to the DoD. The cost per pound to transport it decreases, as the rockets get larger. We also have multiple companies that are using their own money to develop aspects of re-entry systems. That allows you to get the global reach to return the payload anywhere on the planet. This is a bill we don’t have to pay. We just need to learn how to leverage it.”

AFRL plans to use modeling and simulation “to conduct operational analysis, verify military utility, performance, and operational cost,” per the fiscal 2022 budget proposal. “S&T will include novel ‘loadmaster’ designs to quickly load/unload a rocket, rapid launch capabilities from unusual sites, characterization of potential landing surfaces and approaches to rapidly improve those surfaces, adversary detectability, new novel trajectories, and an S&T investigation of the potential ability to air drop a payload after reentry.”