According to papers acquired by The Intercept via a Freedom of Information Act request, the Pentagon envisions a future in which Elon Musk’s rockets may deploy a “rapid response force” to foil a future Benghazi-style assault. In October 2020, the Pentagon’s U.S. Transportation Command, or USTRANSCOM, revealed that it was teaming up with Musk’s SpaceX rocketry business to test the viability of launching goods into space and returning them to Earth rather than flying them.
According to Army Gen. Stephen Lyons’ presentation, the objective would be to fly a “C-17 [freight aircraft] equal anyplace on the planet in less than 60 minutes,” a hitherto unimaginable leap forward in military logistics. According to a USTRANSCOM news release, SpaceX’s enormous Starship rocket will one day be able to “rapidly transfer key supplies during time-sensitive crises” and “provide humanitarian aid.”
While the Pentagon hinted at the possibility of transporting unidentified “people” during these short space flights, the statement focused only on carrying cargo. According to internal papers acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, USTRANSCOM has more innovative applications in mind. USTRANSCOM detailed both possible applications and drawbacks for a fleet of military Starships in a 2021 “Midterm Report” written as part of its relationship with SpaceX.
Despite the fact that SpaceX is currently a defense contractor, having launched American military satellites and improved Ukrainian communication lines, the paper offers three examples of possible future “DOD use cases for point to point space transportation.” The first mentions “space transportation as an alternate way for logistical delivery” in the Pacific, which might be a hint to American concerns about Chinese hegemony.
The second envisions SpaceX rockets carrying an Air Force deployable air base system, which is “a collection of shelters, trucks, construction equipment, and other gear that can be prepositioned across the world and transferred to any location where the USAF needs to stand-up air operations.”
The third anticipated use case, named just “Embassy Support,” situations in which a “rapid theatre direct delivery capability from the United States to an African bare base would prove highly vital in supporting the Department of State’s mission in Africa,” perhaps involving the employment of a “quick response force,” a military term for a swiftly deployed armed unit, generally employed in crisis settings, is more provocative and less prosaic than the first two.
The potential to simply “show” the employment of a SpaceX Starship “may dissuade non-state actors from hostile activities against the United States,” according to the memo. Though the scenario is vague, the idea of an African embassy being attacked by a “non-state actor” is reminiscent of the infamous 2012 Benghazi incident in Libya, when armed militants attacked an American diplomatic compound, prompting a quick response force that was later criticized for arriving too late to help.
Experts believe that, as much as American generals fantasize about rocket-propelled commandos battling North African militants, this scenario is still the stuff of science fiction. Both Musk and the Pentagon have a history of making outlandish promises that dazzling and improbable technology, such as self-driving vehicles and hyperloops, or rail guns and missile-swatting lasers, are on the horizon. All four Starship high-altitude tests, according to another USTRANSCOM document acquired via a FOIA request, ended in the vessel catastrophically exploding, however, a test was done after the document’s production in May 2021 landed successfully.
“Are they going to send humans into space to prevent the next Benghazi?” William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute who studies the US weapons business and military budget, echoed this sentiment. “It doesn’t seem to make much sense.” Even if it were conceivable, Hartung questioned whether a rocket-based fast response force would be useful. “Even if a crowd attacks an embassy and summons their handy SpaceX rocket, it will take a long time to arrive….” It’s almost as if someone believes doing things via space would be extremely cool but hasn’t considered the practical implications.” Hartung also cited the Pentagon’s track record of space-based “dream weapons,” such as “Star Wars” missile defense, which have sucked up large funds yet resulted in nothing.
A request for comment from SpaceX was not returned. “Interest in PTP deployment is exploratory in nature,” USTRANSCOM spokesman John Ross stated in an email to The Intercept, adding that “our quest for understanding what may be viable is why we’ve engaged into joint research and development agreements like the one you reference,” and that “the speed of space transportation provides the ability to give more alternatives and wider decision space for leaders, as well as difficulties for adversaries.” Ross said USTRANCOM is “excited for the future and feel it’s conceivable within the next 5-10 years” when asked when a rocket-deployed fast response force may be viable.
According to Kaitlyn Johnson, a deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Aerospace Security Project, “My two cents are that it’s doubtful that they would be able to evacuate anybody swiftly by rocket,” Johnson said. Even if the fundamental technology is good, Johnson points out that the issue of where to land a massive 165-foot Starship rocket, the world’s biggest, remains. “It’s not like they can park a Starship next to the embassy if it’s in a city.” It hasn’t been tried or proved, and in my view is a little sci-fi, to have an embassy rescue operation include “logistics concerns there regarding getting troops onboard launch vehicle and then again on where you could land the vehicle and how you get the forces from the landing site to the base/embassy.”
“Are they going to send humans into space to prevent the next Benghazi?” It doesn’t seem to make any sense.”
Another possible snag mentioned in the dossier is whether other nations would allow SpaceX military rockets to fall out of orbit and land on their soil. The American “Starship Troopers” perspective is not a novel one: According to an article in Popular Science from 2006, the Pentagon envisioned a day when “Marines could touch land anywhere on the planet in less than two hours, without having to negotiate clearance through foreign territory.”
However, the USTRANSCOM document acknowledges that treaties controlling the use of space from the Cold War give no guidance on whether an American rocket might circumvent national airspace issues by cruising through space. One-piece states, “It is unknown if and how vehicles are subject to established aviation regulations, and to what degree if any, these laws accompany them into space for PTP space transportation.” “In addition, the absence of a legal definition of the border between air and space raises the question of where aviation law stops and space law starts.”
The letter does imply that leaping over these problems might be part of SpaceX’s promise. “This recovery takes the Starship outside of heights normally described as controlled airspace,” USTRANSCOM remarked after a redacted discussion of a hypothetical military Starship’s legal status while in flight.
Territorial issues are only one of several, according to Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a space governance thinks tank, “along with whether or not the nations the rocket/spaceship passes oversee it as a weapon or ballistic missile danger or not.” Despite its “Mr. Clean” reputation as a benign facilitator of cosmic exploration, Hartung claims that SpaceX is contributing to the worldwide militarization of space.
And, like with drones, once a sophisticated and solely American technology gains traction, the United States will be forced to confront the consequences from the opposite side. “What would stop other nations from doing the same thing, and how would the United States feel about that?” Hartung wondered. “From a military standpoint, the capacity to travel anywhere without seeking permission from anybody appeals, but would the US want other nations to have the same capability?” “I doubt it.”