Imagine a US Embassy under attack in a foreign country. It is seemingly cut off from all aid and assistance. The outnumbered Marine guards are fighting off hoards of armed attackers trying to storm the embassy. Suddenly, from the skies above comes a deep rumble that shakes the Earth. Looking up, both the Marines and the armed mob see 6 huge rockets descend from the skies and land upright. Like something from a Sci-Fi movie, a ramp descends, and several hundred Marines storm down the ramp. This is what Elon Musk’s companies hope to achieve.
As early as the 1950s, many scientists have investigated the possibility of utilizing rockets to transport troops. Specifically, an attempt named Project Ithacus, where 1,200 Marines would blast off into space and reach their destination in under an hour – sounds quite familiar to the current project. Last January 28, SpaceX won a contract worth $102 million to transport military supplies and aid to anywhere in the world using a rocket, so we’re definitely on our way toward developing that technology.
Starlink and the US Military
Starlink, a satellite internet service operated by his own SpaceX, had been deployed to Ukraine after a casual request from the country’s Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov. In a tweet, he asked Musk to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations for internet access.
“@elonmusk, while you try to colonize Mars – Russia try to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets successfully land from space – Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand,” the Vice Prime Minister said.
Within a few days, Elon stated that Starlink was activated in Ukraine and that the terminals were on their way. Fedorov thanked Musk as the terminals would arrive on March 1, with Musk replying to the Vice Prime Minster with a “You are most welcome” tweet.
When Russian forces jammed the European Satellite Communications (SATCOM) terminals early on in the war, Musk’s SpaceX came in not just for internet communications but also as Ukraine’s GIS artillery, ultimately helping them restore SATCOM services. This enabled Ukrainian forces to communicate beyond enemy lines and to transmit high bandwidth data. Meanwhile, the Russians were unable to locate targets because of the absence of electronic signatures.
Experts have also stated that UAVs could use Starlink. It has already been used with Ukraine’s elite drone unit, the Aerorozvidka, where Starlink monitors and coordinates UAVs. This enables the elite unit to attack Russian ground forces and tank positions. In a high-pressure situation without an internet connection, Starlink may prove to be a great piece of asset to have when UAVs need to utilize the internet for positioning and target acquisition.
“We use Starlink equipment and connect the drone team with our artillery team,” an Aerorozvidka officer said to The Times. “If we use a drone with thermal vision at night, the drone must connect through Starlink to the artillery guy and create target acquisition,” he added.
The access to Starlink by the Ukrainian population also helped Ukraine publish information online in real-time, enabling it to be utilized in areas where the internet has been censored or limited.
Many people don’t know that SpaceX, which operates Starlink, has a strong military background. SpaceX, in 2004, had acquired a stake in Surrey Satellite Technology, presently owned by Airbus Defence and Space. Later, their share would be sold back to EADS Astrium in 2008. Then, in 2005, Space X would be awarded a contract from the US Air Force, with the USAF able to purchase $100 million worth of launches from the company. NASA would follow suit with an IDIQ contract for SpaceX worth $1 billion.
In 2012, the company was involved with the US Department of Defense’s contracts bidding. As a result, the USAF awarded SpaceX with two EELV-class missions, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and Space Test Program 2 (STP-2). Deep Space Climate Observatory was introduced during a Falcon 9 rocket launch vehicle in 2015. Additionally, Space Test Program 2 was found on a Falcon Heavy on June 25, 2019.
Falcon 9 going supersonic pic.twitter.com/Fla67xwxf3
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 26, 2022
It was not surprising to many that Starlink and SpaceX would eventually get into the defense industry as it historically had ties to the military since its inception. In 2016, the USAF awarded SpaceX the launch for the 2nd GPS 3 satellite for $82.7 million, and the 3rd GPS 3 launch as recent as June 2020, amongst many of its contracts.
SpaceX’s Ongoing Projects
With about 2,400 mass-produced satellites in low Earth orbit, military capabilities for SpaceX developments are endless. After successful bids and ongoing partnership projects, the Space Development Agency awarded SpaceX with an initial $150 million for the company to develop a deluxe military version of the Starlink satellite bus, ultimately forming the tracking of the Space Force’s National Defense Space Architecture (SDA). This has the potential to build missile-tracking satellites for the Pentagon, where SpaceX also acquired a contract for four satellites in its assembly plant in Redmond.
These four satellites are fitted with wide-angle infrared missile-tracking sensors, making it increasingly possible to track and intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles. Unfortunately, much of the program is classified, which tells you a lot about its military applications if the military does not want the average joe knowing what it can do.
From communications, real-time position tracking and missile tracking, positioning aid for drones, and possibly other weapons, Starlink can be further developed for enhanced military use if they want to push through in that direction.
In 2020, it was reported that the US military is cooperating with Elon Musk to develop a 7,500 mph rocket that can blast 80 tons of cargo into space and deliver this cargo anywhere in the world – in under one hour. Yes, that seems like it was pulled straight out of a “Star Wars” or Sci-fi film as predecessors of their light-speed travel, but this technology (albeit a way slower one) is in the works.
Former US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) Head Gen. Stephen Lyons stated in 2020 that the project was moving “very, very rapidly in this area” and that he was very excited to be working with SpaceX at that time. They are targeting the rocket delivery from Cape Canaveral to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, which would be completed in just below an hour, with a travel distance of over 7,000 miles in under an hour. The same journey would take a C-17 Globemaster for over 15 hours with a maximum speed of 590 mph.
However, the feasibility and cost of the project continue to be a clear concern for military analysts. For example, with C-17s costing $218 million a piece, how much would a SpaceX rocket ship cost, and how much would it cost the US taxpayer every time it was operated?
USTRANSCOM stated that this technology would be a boon in transporting US forces and equipment in the future if determined to be possible. In addition, they envisioned the tech to be used in “critical logistics during time-sensitive contingencies” and would “deliver humanitarian assistance.”
On the more optimistic side of things, the USTRANSCOM hopes to use the tech as a “quick reaction force” instead of the primary weapons delivery system. They noted that it could be used as a transport vehicle to rapidly deploy a unit where US interests are endangered, such as in the Benghazi attacks in 2012. If USTRANSCOM can prove this is possible, it may deter future attacks on US personnel, officials, and infrastructure.
But even if they could prove that it is hypothetically possible, where would the ship land at the specified destination? How would it take off again after finishing its mission? Such maneuvers have not yet been perfected, and it is unlikely that we’ll see these rocket techs anytime soon, but the project sounds promising.
It all sounds like sci-fi for now, and we admit it sounds like something impossible. But let us remember that smartphones were once the stuff of fiction a mere hundred years ago. As technology progresses, these once sci-fi ideas can become a reality just with far more years of research and development.