Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Amateurs talk about tactics; professionals study logistics.” He was right — for all of the military might the United States has at its disposal, it’s not the firepower, the troop count, or even the advanced technology that makes America’s military such an imposing global presence; it’s the supply lines. Now, the Pentagon is mulling over the idea of bolstering those supply lines by launching rockets on missions that take them not into space… but to other locations on this planet.
“They have talked about moving cargo in space, and we’ve sat down with SpaceX and had that discussion,” said Air Force Materiel Command head, Gen. Maryanne Miller. We won’t commit any resources, but we’ve committed to work with them to see how quickly they progress.”
The United States military boasts a truly global logistical infrastructure, built on a network of hundreds of military installations, established on foreign soil, and practical alliances established between the U.S. and nations with shared values or interests. There’s no place on the planet American troops can’t rapidly get to and operate, with resupplies coming by way of naval and airborne assets scrambled from any number of nearby and far off locations. America is the best in the world at putting troops where they need to be and keeping them supplied with what they need to manage difficult circumstances… but in a number of ways, being “the best in the world” simply isn’t good enough.
The problem is, as well equipped as the U.S. military may be when it comes to moving supplies and gear around the world, it’s still an awfully big world. The vast majority of the aircraft the U.S. relies on to move supplies around the planet are capable of only subsonic flight (meaning they can’t achieve speeds greater than 767 miles per hour). The earth’s surface is a little shy of 200 million square miles, so it doesn’t take particularly hard arithmetic to begin to grasp the limitations of even America’s massive supply infrastructure.
If you need gear in an extremely remote region of the world, it may take days for it to reach you. If you have extremely important equipment in Kentucky that needs to be in Japan — decisions can be made to expedite its delivery, but ultimately that delivery still has to be made via aircraft that can only travel at speeds measured in hundreds of miles per hour. If your destination is 6,000 miles away — hundreds of miles per hour still doesn’t feel all that quick.
Instead, the U.S. Air Force would load the cargo into ICBM-like rockets (though likely larger to support greater payloads) and use the same launch and targeting apparatus that has long been employed as a part of the nation’s nuclear arsenal to launch these platforms at the part of the world that needs the supplies. Once it got there, however, it would rotate and execute a vertical landing like traditional SpaceX rockets, rather than careening into the earth’s surface with a nuclear weapon in its nose.
For now, the concept is still in its infancy and some significant barriers remain. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket could potentially do the job already — but the cost is still prohibitive when compared to the use of America’s (still expensive) cargo aircraft fleets. However, as the cost of rocket launches continues to shrink, it seems entirely feasible that rapid resupply missions could be carried out via rocket someday in the not too distant future.