US Air Force Plans on Investing $47.9M for Rocket Cargo Project

The commercial rockets are to deliver AF cargoes anywhere on Earth within less than an hour, with a 100-ton capacity.
Fabienne Lang

Ambitious plans are in store for the U.S. Air Force. Last week, the Air Force published its "justification book" to explain to the White House its past and future budget intentions and allocations. 

On page 305 of the document, the Air Force outlines its desire to invest $47.9 million for a "Rocket Cargo" project, as the title of that section is called. The investment wouldn't start until October, in the new fiscal year, and it's a decent jump up for the current fiscal year's investment of $9.7 million. It's clear to see the Air Force is ramping up its efforts there. 

What exactly is the "Rocket Cargo" project? 

As per the document, "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 cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity."

As ArsTechnica points out, the only rocket currently capable of carrying that amount of cargo is SpaceX's Starship. It has the ability to carry over 100 metric tonnes to Earth orbit.

So even though the Air Force doesn't explicitly mention the Starship by name, it may well be zeroing in on the SpaceX rocket. 

The Air Force makes a point of stating that it won't be investing in the development of such a commercial rocket, rather it'll provide funds for "the Science & Technology needed to interface the capability with DoD (Department of Defense) logistics needs, and extend the commercial capability to DoD-unique missions."

It essentially wants to find a new, faster, cheaper substitute for its current TRANSCOM Strategic Airlift mission. 

The "Science and Technology" part that the Air Force is referring to includes "'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."

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It certainly looks like the Air Force knows exactly what it's looking for, and it may well be the Starship. Given how well and quickly the SpaceX rocket's development is advancing, with its ocean spaceport "Deimos" that will launch the Starship opening next year, the Air Force might want to get in on the action. 

Could it be one way of holding up against potential attacks from space? Perhaps. The U.S.' threat report published in April certainly pointed towards China weaponizing space, so perhaps the U.S. DoD also wants to keep its tactics space-related.

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