Pentagon studies use of SpaceX for rocket-deployed forces

The Pentagon is considering a future in which Elon Musk’s Rockets could one day deploy a “rapid reaction force” to thwart a future Benghazi-style attack, according to documents obtained by The Intercept via the Freedom of Information Act request.

In October 2020, the U.S. Transportation Command, or USTRANSCOM, the Pentagon office tasked with shuttling to maintain America’s global military presence, announced it was partnering with Musk’s rocket company SpaceX to determine the feasibility of quickly detonate supplies in space and return to Earth rather than flying them through the air. The goal, according to a presentation by Army General Stephen Lyonswould be to fly a “C-17 [cargo plane] equivalent anywhere on the globe in less than 60 minutes”, a amazing jump vanguard in military logistics hitherto confined to science fiction. A USTRANSCOM press release exclaimed that one day SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket could “quickly move critical logistics during urgent emergencies” and “provide humanitarian assistance.” While the Pentagon hinted at the possibility of shuttling unspecified “personnel” on these brief space jaunts, the focus of the announcement was squarely on cargo transportation.

But USTRANSCOM has more imaginative uses in mind, according to internal documents obtained via FOIA. In a 2021 “mid-term report” written as part of its partnership with SpaceX, USTRANSCOM outlined both the potential uses and pitfalls of a fleet of militarized starships. Although SpaceX is already functionally a defense contractor, launching US military satellites and bolstering Ukrainian communications links, the report provides three examples of future “potential DOD use cases for point-to-point space transportation” . The first, perhaps a nod to US concerns about Chinese hegemony, notes that “space transportation provides an alternative method of logistical delivery” in the Pacific. The second imagines SpaceX rockets delivering an Air Force deployable air base system, “a collection of shelters, vehicles, construction equipment and other equipment that can be prepositioned around the world and moved to any place the USAF requires to conduct air operations”.

A partially redacted illustration of a SpaceX Starship.

Credit: United States Transportation Command

But the third imagined use case is more provocative and less prosaic than the first two, titled only “Embassy Support,” scenarios in which a “rapid direct delivery capability from the United States theater to a bare base Africa would be extremely important in sustaining the ministry. mission of the state in Africa,” potentially including the use of a “rapid reaction force,” a military term for a rapidly deployed armed unit typically used in crisis conditions. The ability to simply “demonstrate” this use of a SpaceX Starship, the document notes, “could deter non-state actors from aggressive acts toward the United States.” Although the script is devoid of specifics, the idea of ​​an African embassy under sudden attack by a “non-state actor” is reminiscent of the infamous Benghazi incident in 2012, when armed militants attacked a US diplomatic compound. in Libya, stimulating a rapid reaction force. later criticized as having arrived too late to help.

Even though US generals dream of rocket-borne commandos fighting North African insurgents, experts say that scenario is still science fiction. Both Musk and the Pentagon have a long history of stratospherically grandiose claims that dazzling and utterly implausible technologies, whether safe self-driving cars and hyperloop or rail guns and anti-missile lasers, are just around the corner. As noted in another USTRANSCOM document obtained via FOIA request, the Starship’s four high-altitude tests resulted in a spectacular explosion of the craft, although a May 2021 test conducted after the document was created did land. safely.

“What are they going to do, stop the next Benghazi by sending people into space?” said William Hartung, a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute who focuses on the US arms industry and the defense budget. “That doesn’t seem to make much sense.” Hartung wondered how significant a rocket-based rapid reaction force would be even if it were possible. “If a mob attacks an embassy and they dial in their handy SpaceX spacecraft, it will still take a while to get there. … It’s almost like someone thought it would be really cool to do things in space but didn’t think about the practical ramifications. Hartung also pointed to the Pentagon’s track record of space-based “fantasy weapons,” such as “Star Wars” missile defenseelaborate projects that absorb colossal budgets but come to nothing.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. In an email to The Intercept, USTRANSCOM spokesman John Ross wrote that “interest in deploying PTP is exploratory in nature and our quest to understand what may be feasible is the reason for which we have entered into cooperative research and development agreements such as the one you refer to”. adding that “the speed of space transportation promises the potential to provide more options and greater decision-making space for leaders, and dilemmas for adversaries.” Asked when USTRANCOM thought a rocket-deployed quick reaction force might be feasible, Ross said the command was “excited about the future and think it’s possible within 5 to 10 coming years”.

“My two cents are that it’s unlikely they can rocket evacuate anyone quickly,” said Kaitlyn Johnson, deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Johnson pointed out that while the underlying technology was sound, the small question of where to land a massive 165-foot Starship rocket, the largest in the world, remains. “If it’s in a city, it’s not like they can land [a] Ship next to the Embassy. In the hypothetical embassy rescue mission, “you still have logistical issues getting the forces to the launcher and then back to where you could land the vehicle and how to get the forces from the landing site at the base/embassy,” Johnson added. , “which has not been tested or proven and in my opinion is a bit of science fiction.”

“What are they going to do, stop the next Benghazi by sending people into space? That doesn’t seem to make much sense.

The document also nods to another potential issue: Will other countries drop SpaceX military rockets out of space and onto their territory? The vision of American “Starship Troopers” is not new: as early as 2006, according to a popular science report, the Pentagon dreamed of a time when “Marines could land anywhere on the globe in less than two hours, without having to negotiate passage through foreign airspace.” But the USTRANSCOM document admits that Cold War-era treaties governing the use of space provide little guidance as to whether a US rocket could circumvent sovereign airspace issues by navigating in outer space. “It remains unclear if and how vehicles are subject to established aviation laws and to what extent, if any, these laws follow them into space for PTP space transportation,” reads one section. . “Furthermore, the lack of a legal definition of the boundary between air and space creates the question of where the application of aviation law ends and where space law begins.” The document hints that part of SpaceX’s promise may be to skip over these concerns. Following a redacted discussion of the legal status of a hypothetical military vessel in flight, USTRANSCOM noted, “This recovery places the vessel outside of altitudes generally characterized as controlled airspace.”

Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a space governance think tank, told The Intercept that territorial concerns are just one of many, “along with whether or not countries the rocket/spacecraft passes through view it as a ballistic missile weapon or threat or not Hartung argued that SpaceX, despite its “Mr. Clean” image as a catalyst peaceful cosmic exploration contributes to the global weaponization of space. And as with drones, once an advanced and uniquely American technology begins to proliferate, the United States will have to face its implications on the other side.” The question is, what would prevent other countries from doing the same thing, and what would the United States think about it?” asked Hartung. “This idea of ​​going anywhere without having to get anyone’s approval is att brilliant from a military point of view, but would the United States want other countries to have the same capability? Probably not.”

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