The Air Force motto is “Aim High,” but a better suggestion is “Buyer beware.”
In its 2022 funding request, the U.S. Air Force revealed it is looking to invest nearly $50 million into the research and development of rocket payload delivery systems for the rapid transport of cargo and troops across the globe. While the branch has indicated that the investment isn’t geared towards any particular company, most observers believe that the outlined criteria — rapid reusability and 100,000-ton cargo capacity — suggest it is considering SpaceX’s Starship prototype.
If the Air Force announces it is investing in Starship, the news will come less than a year after the Space Force entered into a direct development agreement with SpaceX with a similar goal in mind: the prospect of global one-hour payload delivery. If the Department of Defense (DoD) decides to pursue this unproven technology, it needs to proceed with caution.
For Starship, Musk said he has a goal of $2 million per launch and delivery, which would provide same-day reusability with greater carrying capacity at a fraction of current costs. The Air Force has been dealing with a thin budget for years, which has increased the need for smart investments with high probability returns. However, while SpaceX’s standing in the commercial space industry has presented many positives, the company is also known for unpredictable development schedules, which could undercut the same cause the Air Force is seemingly trying to help.
For example, in 2018, after years of delays and setbacks with its cargo delivery rockets, the space company conceded that it had to revise its contract with NASA and raise prices by 50-percent. According to an audit from the NASA Office of Inspector General, it did so because it received a “better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience with cargo resupply missions.” The Air Force should keep this in mind when considering the viability of SpaceX’s current Starship plans.
Musk often overstates his company’s capabilities, and even he concedes that the latest figures he provided for Starship sound “insane.” Nothing about Starship’s development demonstrates this time will be any different.
An independent analysis thinks that a conservative estimate for Starship would exceed a few billion in development costs, likely surpassing $216 million per rocket. To get to that “insane” $2 million per launch number, Musk would need to launch his planned Starship fleet 10 million times. Whether he believes that number is attainable or not, Musk should know that 10 million launches will take many years to achieve, and it isn’t an honest way to sell his services.
Musk is likely trying to make his product appear cheaper on paper than the current delivery system, which utilize aircraft that cost in the ballpark of $218 million. However, absent Musk’s promises, the Air Force may find itself left sponsoring a craft that regulators have labeled incredibly risky. That doesn’t seem like a smart investment strategy that the U.S. Air Force should follow.
If Starship does eventually end up working, the Air Force would then have to overcome the complexities of international spaceship tracking — a field that is slow in its development due to geopolitical tensions.
Unlike airplanes, these rockets will travel at the same speed as a missile and fly in a similar path until the slow landing. A good air defense system won’t wait for the slowdown. It will intercept the projectile before it has time to change speeds.
The Air Force would need to utilize a global tracking system so that Starship isn’t mistaken for a ballistic missile on radar and needlessly shot down. It would likely mirror the current air traffic system that prevents commercial aircraft from being mistaken for military intruders. However, even with a global agreement for spaceship tracking, an increase in rocket launches would still increase the chances of a “mishap” like the one that nearly sent the U.S. to war with the Soviet Union in 1983.
This threat becomes more concerning when one considers Musk’s plans to put people on board. The military vehicles would look nearly identical to SpaceX’s planned commercial vehicles, making eventual civilian travel more dangerous. An incident with commercial travel could mimic the sinking of the Lusitania and lead to an avoidable escalation between America and its foreign competitors, which then became foes.
So, if the DoD is serious about pushing for space-based payload delivery, it should be clear about its plans to overcome severe obstacles around cooperation agreements with strategic competitors like China and Russia.
Yet, the DoD seems ready to pursue this pipedream at the taxpayers’ expense with little consideration for the many problems it could pose — both at home and abroad. Senators such as Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND) have recently criticized the direction the Biden DoD is heading in terms of spending prioritization. Perhaps Congress needs to step up and call out risky investment strategies like this one as well.
James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.