The US Air Force has designated its effort to determine the viability of using large commercial rockets for logistics missions across the world as its fourth Vanguard program.
Vanguard programs are designed for rapid advancement of emerging weapon systems and warfighting concepts through prototyping and experimentation.
In addition to being the fourth ASAF Vanguard program, “Rocket Cargo” will be the first such program led by the US Space Force. The Space and Missile Systems Center will serve as the Program Executive Officer.
Under Rocket Cargo, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) will research and the possibilities of leveraging new commercial rocket capabilities for the DoD logistics mission.
This includes the ability to land a rocket on a wide range of non-traditional materials and surfaces, including at remote sites.
In addition, AFRL scientists and engineers will research the ability to safely land a rocket near personnel and structures, engineer a rocket cargo bay and logistics for rapid loading and unloading, and air drop cargo from the rocket after re-entry in order to service locations where a rocket or aircraft cannot possibly land.
“The Air Force has provided rapid global mobility for decades and Rocket Cargo is a new way the Department can explore complementary capabilities for the future,” said Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth. “Vanguard initiatives lead to game-changing breakthroughs that preserve our advantage over near-peer competitors, and this latest addition is also a significant milestone as the first Vanguard evaluated under the Space Force’s oversight.”
Based on the advertised commercial capability and business objectives, the AFRL is currently assessing emerging rocket capability across the commercial vendor base, and its potential use for transporting DoD materiel to ports across the globe.
“The Rocket Cargo Vanguard is a clear example of how the Space Force is developing innovative solutions as a service, in particular the ability to provide independent options in, from, and to space,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond. “Once realized, Rocket Cargo will fundamentally alter the rapid logistics landscape, connecting materiel to joint warfighters in a fraction of the time it takes today. In the event of conflict or humanitarian crisis, the Space Force will be able to provide our national leadership with an independent option to achieve strategic objectives from space.”
Delivering cargo via rocket transportation is not a new concept. Historically the high costs of launch have been prohibitive for a logistics-focused application, and the relatively small payload capability constrained the types of cargo that could be delivered, also limiting its suitability. Today several commercial companies are quickly generating new opportunities by developing large rockets and reusable stages that safely land back on earth, expanding cargo capacity and dramatically reducing launch costs.
“Rapid logistics underpins our ability to project power,” said Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, Jr., commander of Air Force Materiel Command. “That is the fundamental motivation for initiating the Rocket Cargo program. We see its initial applications in swiftly restoring operational capability for forces forward in austere environments as well as dramatically reducing the time required to deliver crucial humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
AFRL is closely partnered with USTRANSCOM to assess the trade space of a potential Rocket Cargo capability for global logistics, including potential improvements in delivery cost and speed compared to existing air cargo operations. Potential mission applications include Special Airlift to deliver equipment needed to quickly restore a loss of mission operations, and humanitarian aid and disaster relief payloads to stricken areas.
Rocket Cargo joins three current Vanguard programs, including Skyborg (an autonomy core system in a low-cost, attritable unmanned aerial platform to enable autonomous operations); NTS-3 (a flight experiment to examine and field capabilities across the ground, space and user segments to enhance space-based positioning, navigation, and timing); and Golden Horde (an initiative to demonstrate collaborative autonomous networked weapons by creating an integrated weapon system where different technologies work together to defeat targets).