The recent launch and retrieval by SpaceX of its Falcon 9 first-stage booster after placing a satellite in orbit is a milestone in the space industry. Until now, getting into orbit meant throwing away most of the rocket on the way up in order to place a minute fraction of the total vehicle mass into space, an approach to spaceflight akin to throwing away a 747 after crossing the Atlantic. The ability to reuse first-stage rocket boosters many times over will permanently change the economics of spaceflight. Moreover, this dramatic innovation in space technology will also have dramatic operational and strategic implications for the first military force to fully leverage it.
The industrial, commercial, and civilizational implications of Elon Musk’s achievement with SpaceX are enormous. Not least of these, reusable rocket boosters could reduce the cost of placing satellites in orbit by nearly two orders of magnitude. Although spaceflight is difficult, this technology may soon open near-Earth orbit for widespread commercial use and later place human beings on the Moon and Mars — possible on a permanent basis.
Like the railroad or the aircraft before it, the mastery of reusable rocket booster technologies could dramatically change transportation to orbit and open new areas of near-Earth space for commercial development. Moreover, it may give a much-needed positive boost to an America that seems wary, tired, and convinced it can no longer do big, bold, and inventive things. SpaceX reminds us that United States still has some fight left in terms of innovation, and the company represents the very best of American business and entrepreneurship.
Given the economic promise of this technology and SpaceX’s intent to open the solar system — and that could happen soon if the technology develops as planned — it may seem churlish to point out the significant military uses of reusable rocket boosters. However, the military and strategic implications of commercial developments of this scale and scope should be of keen interest to the military professional. These implications will reverberate far beyond lower launch costs for military payloads.
If employed as part of important emerging joint warfighting concepts, reusable rocket boosters like the Falcon 9 reusable first stage could help to solve a number of tricky emerging military challenges facing the U.S. over the next two decades, particularly the challenge of adversary anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) stratagems. The United States should be the first to recognize this and exploit the full potential of reusable rocketry to defeat theater defenses based on large-scale disposable missile arsenals such as those deployed by Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and other potential adversaries.
The Military Problem
As great power challenges to the United States make a comeback, a wide range of missile technologies including cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and advanced air defense systems — almost exclusively single-use — are being deployed to deter the introduction of U.S. forces and create protected zones to increase the power projection potential of their military forces nearby. The growth and increasing sophistication of A2/AD capabilities threaten the ability of the United States to project military force around the world.
By increasing the risk to U.S. and allied forces operating in certain regions of the world, long-range precision strike and advanced air defenses serve to both deter the United States from countering aggression by great powers increasingly seeking to coerce their neighbors and enforce unilateral rules and norms at the expense of neighbors.
Russia, China, Iran, and others can use these capabilities to hold U.S. forces at bay while bringing to bear more conventional power projection capabilities against nearby targets using carrier strike groups, amphibious formations, or fast moving mechanized combined armor and artillery formations. These interlocking operational capabilities are geared to create a fait accompli and consolidate control over an objective before the United States can effectively respond, thus preventing it from bringing effective countervailing power to bear.
As the third offset strategy gathers pace, small, smart, and swarming capabilities will comprise an important part of the equation to address these future threats. Yet the future joint force will sometimes also require capabilities that are fast, shocking, and long range. Reusable rocket boosters may enable these latter capabilities at significantly lower cost than today. Long range reusable rocketry could potentially improve the performance of the joint force as a whole and negate key military investments by our adversaries — particularly if developed and used in innovative and novel ways.
The Theater Guided Missile Carrier Concept
To offset the disposable rocketry upon which adversary theater defenses are based, the United States should explore the plausibility of a maritime-based theater strike system that takes advantage of the speed and near-invulnerability of theater-range missiles, the operational mobility and loadout capacity of large surface vessels, and the competitive cost advantage of SpaceX’s reusable rockets.
The Theater Guided Missile Carrier (T-CVG) concept envisions a warship optimized to arm, launch, retrieve, and reuse ten or more weaponized, payload-carrying versions of Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage boosters. Launched from the deck of a ship, a weaponized Falcon 9 first stage would accelerate its payload on a suborbital ballistic trajectory and maneuver the main body of the rocket back to the T-CVG after release, landing vertically for transport below deck to be readied for another strike mission.
Such a weapon could deliver a significant payload to the operationally significant 1,000 to 5,000-mile ranges required to avoid modern and projected A2/AD systems. Achieving such ranges with the first stage alone requires far less than the 16,000 mph required to reach orbit. According to the Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle Payload Users Guide, the 36’ by 15’ fairing used by full-up Falcon 9 two-stage rocket can place 13,000 pounds and 6000 cubic feet of volume to low-Earth orbit. This suggests that a modified Falcon 9 reusable first stage may be capable of payloads of over 18,000 pounds at 5,000 miles.
The vessel used to launch and retrieve the weaponized Falcon 9 boosters could be based on a highly modified Expeditionary Transfer Dock (ESD) like the oil tanker-based USNS Montford Point. In particular, the Expeditionary Mobile Base (ESB) variant of this ship class boasts some 500’ x 164’ of open deck space, comparing favorably with SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship, which itself measures some 300’ by 170’. Also, like SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ships, the ESB has thrusters for precision station keeping during both launch and retrieval operations. The same station used today to transfer cargo from the ship could support a stable platform for booster recovery.
To accommodate this new mission, the ESB’s deck arrangement must include launch support equipment and umbilicals, a recovery deck, and cranes or elevators to move the rocket systems to the launch assembly and from the landing pad to the internal magazine. The internal “mission deck” within T-CVG would be consist of a magazine and large maintenance rack based on SpaceX’s transporter integration hanger, but modified to refurbish, refuel and rearm up to 10 boosters simultaneously. Handling cranes would move the booster to a vertical launch position near the bow of the ship for launch. Moreover, the T-CVG would require fuel management systems capable of processing RP-1 and liquid oxygen or liquid methane in the future. A weaponized Falcon 9 first stage would require a new payload attach fitting (PAF) to dispense a range of munitions depending on the mission. Although SpaceX rockets are designed with commonality in mind, the large-capacity 17’ faring would have to be mated directly to the first stage itself (currently, it is attached to the second stage). Configured in this way, the 17’ fairing and PAF could accommodate as many as 12 Common Aero Vehicle (CAV)-sized submunitions (a capability explored by the Air Force a decade ago) within the roughly 36’ x 15’ capacity of the aero shell.
Each of these weaponized Falcon 9 first stages could carry a mix of munitions depending on the mission. For example, the booster could release 12 maneuvering CAVs to dispense traditional payloads near a target, such as three Joint Direct Attack Munitions or nine Small Diameter Bombs per CAV. Each CAV could also deploy more exotic smart submunitions or swarms of small expendable hunter-killer UAVs, perhaps based on the currently used Switchblade. Instead of this boost-glide concept, the weaponized Falcon 9 may also accommodate hypersonic vehicles of either the gliding or powered variety, or a swarm of guided unitary kinetic kill penetrators.
After release of the payload, the Falcon 9-based first stage would maneuver in order to return to the T-CVG, land on the retrieval deck, and then be brought below deck to rearm, refuel, and relaunch. Depending on how quickly this could be accomplished, a T-CVG with a loadout of 10 boosters could be able to deliver a substantial, sustained bombardment of critical targets with an array of munitions over very long ranges and at a significantly lower cost than currently possible.
Operational Advantages/Strategic Challenges
In the 1990s, the United States explored an “arsenal ship” concept designed to give the fleet a heavier punch, particularly against land targets. This concept featured a relatively low-cost hull fitted with hundreds of Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells to augment the fleet with the full range of U.S. Navy ship-based missile systems. The program faltered and was canceled for many reasons, not least of which the potential threat the concept presented to carrier aviation and overall naval force structure.
From an operational perspective, no matter how many VLS tubes the arsenal ship had, it relied on magazines filled with the very same inventory of missiles found throughout the rest of the surface Navy. Had it been produced, the arsenal ship could have delivered a large number of missiles, but would still risk being “outsticked” by great power opponents who designed longer-range missiles. The T-CVG concept avoids the limitations of the arsenal ship concept by using the advantages in range, speed, payload that reusable boosters could provide. Most critically, it changes the cost equation relative to adversaries that rely on a large arsenal of disposable long-range rocketry.
The T-CVG concept should avoid these problems and provide joint commanders a survivable warship capable of sustained and heavy theater strike. The T-CVG could enable U.S. entry into theater by attacking high value targets such as missile launch facilities, airfields, and integrated air defenses deep inside enemy territory at very long range. This capability may be an important part of a balanced future force that includes other deep strike systems such as the Air Force’s new B-21 bomber.
Moreover, a T-CVG strike composed of a mix of area weapons and lethal submunitions may offset fast-moving mechanized and armored formations and heavy artillery, and it may be particularly well-suited to disrupt potential Russian coercion in the Baltics, Central Europe, or the Caucasus. These new capabilities could allow the U.S. military to fight the deepest of battles, disrupting massed combined arms formations of armor and artillery used so effectively by Russia in Ukraine. In sea control, navalized versions of the Falcon 9 strike system could provide a heavy, long-range strike in support of carrier battle group operations to break up naval formation and allow the fleet to close with adversary homeland.
Clearly, nuclear-armed powers trading large numbers of ballistic missiles is not a recipe for strategic stability. However, adversaries are investing a whole set of long-range missile systems. With Russia accused of increasingly violating limits on missile systems such as the Intermediate Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty by testing prohibited ground-launched systems, investigating the T-CVG concept ensures the United States and its allies do not cede this space to adversaries. Because the ship is mobile, it can be positioned to avoid the misperception of its employment as an ICBM launch by the United States.
A T-CVG-like capability is at least a decade away. Significant engineering and proof of concept work is required to integrate missile systems and shipborne handling to achieve an effective and operationally relevant weapon system. Large and complex rockets will need to be moved quickly and safely from the handing area to the launch tower. Moreover, SpaceX has not demonstrated the ability to actually reuse a recovered booster. It remains to be seen how quickly a recovered first stage booster can be refurbished and relaunched, and can this occur both at sea and under operational warfighting conditions. Although unfamiliar and strange, payload-carrying reusable boosters launched from naval vessels could be an important part of a future integrated naval and joint strike capability.
A century ago, the launch, recovery, rearming, and refueling of aircraft at sea seemed to many both ridiculous and foolish. Over time, the elaborate movement of armed and fueled aircraft sea became commonplace, and by the Second World War, the aircraft carrier had become the centerpiece of the fleet. In retrospect, the marrying of ships and long-range reusable rockets may eventually be a common and well-accepted feature of U.S. military power.
Several questions remain to be answered. Among them, could SpaceX’s integration hanger be effectively modified into a shipboard “magazine” to refurbish and rearm the boosters at sea? How fast can boosters be refurbished, and how many times can the booster be used safely? How many launch and landing operations can be sustained by a single T-CVG ship, and can these reusable rocket systems be effectively employed in concert with other joint force capabilities?
As the data come in from SpaceX’s experimentation with reusable rockets, the Pentagon should examine the T-CVG concept and other military uses of reusable boosters in an operational setting. This capability would be only one of many supporting operational access to a theater of operations, but one uniquely well-suited to opening the theater and providing heavy assured strike beyond the range and defensive capabilities of air defenses and long-range strike systems as exemplified by the Chinese DF-21.
SpaceX and Elon Musk are thinking big about the solutions to the big problem of accessing outer space cheaply. Moreover, they are on the cusp of succeeding in revolutionizing the way that the U.S. accesses outer space. This capability can be an important part of winning a guided munitions salvo competition – a key aspect of the third offset strategy. The U.S. military should consider the potential advantages of this promising technology to solve several of its most pressing emerging military problems and work with the most innovative parts of the emerging private space launch industry.
Jeff Becker is the President of Context LLC, an independent defense consultancy in Virginia. He is a defense futurist supporting the Joint Staff in thinking through the military implications of strategic and security-related change. Previously, he worked as a senior military analyst for SAIC conducting a range of security and defense-related studies.