Spaceborne-forces planners meet with orbital joyride firms
Virgin SpaceShip2 podule jetwing paratroops on cards?
Pentagon space warfare planners want to work with the nascent private space-joyride industry, according to reports. Ambitious US Marine plans to fire a few good men round the world on the same timescale as nuclear warheads have been scaled back, and might instead involve shorter one-way trips using variant Virgin Galactic rocketplanes.
The revelations come from Flight International, which has interviewed US Marine colonel Paul Damphousse of the US National Security Space Office (NSSO). Word on the private spaceflight involvement is sure to satisfy at least one person, the maker of this quietly splendid YouTube vid depicting Virgin Galactic style ships deploying spaceborne US Marines:
According to the colonel, the former USMC "SUSTAIN" plan - where a squad-sized unit of marines would be fired to any point on the globe by a quick-reacting, ICBM style rocket stack and parachute or glide in to land - has been unsurprisingly sidelined for the immediate future.
"They set the bar very, very high," Damphousse told Flight. "In this latest iteration we said: 'Well, do we necessarily need that near-instantaneous crisis response? Do we need to attain orbit? Or is this something that can be shorter range? Let's look at the suborbital band'."
Now, the NSSO has allied with the US Air Force security forces - who are also working on a net-throwing rifle designed to bring down hang-glider or paramotor borne intruders at US airbases. Needless to say, the supertroopers of US Special Operations Command (Navy SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets et al) are also interested.
The various Pentagon spaceborne-warfare enthusiasts have convened a conference, starting today, at which the new wave of private space companies will attend. Flight names beardy biz kingpin Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin and XCOR Aerospace are also invited.
In rough outline, the Pentagon planners are interested in "quick reaction" capability - sending small units of troops, or perhaps unmanned air or ground vehicles, far and fast. (Notwithstanding the vid above, main battle tanks weighing 60 tonnes wouldn't be on the cards). The ability to go outside the atmosphere is useful here, as current aeroplane type in-atmos technology is limited to cruise speeds in the Mach 1 to 2 range.
Hence the fondness in some military circles for going outside the atmosphere, as the new fatcat-joyride craft will be able to. They won't be able to achieve proper orbit, but will be able to soar briefly into space.
Unfortunately, in most cases the proposed designs would not be able to then dip down to drop off their passengers or payloads and then zoom back up and away to America. The journey would be one-way only, for the ship as well as any crew.
However, there is one crazytech tactic being worked on by XCOR which might be of use to the Pentagon. XCOR have a deal with spacesuit company Orbital Outfitters: and Orbital Outfitters are working to develop individual re-entry parachute kits and/or podules which would allow a spacesuited individual to re-enter the atmosphere and land safely without benefit of any ship. Such plans are also being developed by Italian firm Aero Sekur, renowned for its all-female parachute display team.
This opens up the possibility of a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo style space transport boosting up from its piggyback plane to arc high over a hostile nation far above any possible anti-aircraft response. At the appropriate juncture, supertroopers in Orbital Outfitters or Aero Sekur individual re-entry pods would bail out, blazing down as their mother craft soared onward to re-enter within range of a friendly runway elsewhere.
Once the re-entry was over, the podule troopers would deploy their parachutes - or perhaps their strap-on jetwings - and zero in on their target. (If it was a particularly good day for us here at the Reg, the re entry podule strapon-jetwing paratroopers or their adversaries might for unexplained reasons all turn out to be Italian spacesuit models armed with the proposed USAF net-flinger bondage rifles, but that's probably too much to hope for.)
This plan would also work with the originally proposed fully-orbital craft too, of course. Or indeed with the existing space shuttles, or any other astronaut-carrying space launcher for that matter - though you would tend to lose any genuine quickness of reaction in the latter cases.
Getting home again afterwards would still be a serious issue, unless perhaps America chose to invest in the mooted X-Men stealth transport (with the Reg-suggested addition of blown flap rough-landing tech). This could land on a handy bit of road after the mission and pick them up. You might still choose to have the rocket podule troopers for extra speed in arrival, not wishing to wait hours while the probably subsonic pickup plane crawled around the globe.
It's all a bit thin and wacky really, though. The great difficulty is not the technical achievements required - it's finding jobs for the rocket podule troopers (or robots) to do which can't be done better already.
No great need to watch this particular space too closely, we're speculating. The Flight report is here. ®
My point exactly. Depending on how it's done militarising civilian kit has a nasty habit of being a bit harder than people expect. I'm well aware Virgin is no vehicle designer (although their marketing surveys and market size estimatinon may have driven the size choice).
Case in point. the current door design is meant to be difficult (if not impossible) to open in high altitude flight (why would you want to?). Redesign door & frame? Special door with bail out hole in? C130 rear drop ramp? Suddenly its not quite the off the peg SS2 design anymore. Scaled are no stranger to secure govt. contracts and some on site design expertise might avoid proposing something which sounds good and simple but would actually need a total re-design to make it work. Of course that is what cost+ is for (or in the military cost++)
And then it depends if their going to be sensible or play by the standard military procurement rule book. 1 page of actual specs, 250 of pointing out that you cannot use convict labour on release from the local prison (I paraphrase a description from one of the planned attendees) etc etc.
The other joker in the pack is Blue Origin. Their habit of only releasing stuff after the fact (We flew our test vehicle. It went up and down. Here is some video. That is all) might appeal to folks who dont want what they are buying to be in the WSJ, or anywhere else.
As to how far forward Bezos and Co are, who knows. It's my favourite way to go but it lacks 2 key ingredients loved of the AF side of Special Forces.
Penguin because Armadillio vehicles are powered by the Penguin
I think your title answers your question about Virgin, when last I heard Burt Rutan and his operation were the ones who were going to actually design and produce the hardware that Virgin will operate (you didn't think Branson was going to be producing the vehicles, did you?).
I think AC@ 17:54 has a good point, vid not withstanding the forces you will land, as both he and Lewis Page mention, will be light infantry and a fairly limited number of light infantry at that. That said, I do see where such a vehicle might have its place in the Special Ops world where you are trying to get in fast, hit hard, and don't need to hold territory. The question mark I would have about such use would be, "what will you do about exfiltration?"
Wot, no Burt Rutan?
And even more amazingly how the hell Virgin get the Pentagon bods to let an apparently non-American company in at this event, give its core focus is stuff for the more discrete bits of Uncle Sam's war machine.
Normally this requires setting up a US subsidiary with an all American Board. I'm not sure naturalised cuts it.
Naturally Sherman's can talk to the MoD and run their sat. comms. without any of that nonsense. Although it might be interesting if they had the same rules applied to them.
Not sure why Armadillo are showing as all their stuff has been VTOL.
Rocketplane/Kistler should also be on the list. The Rocketplane part is quite a good fit for this lark but their v. poor showing on the NASA COTS programme may have put them on the bench.
Which leaves Xcor. Who have a (small) winged vehicle, a lead rocket engine designer whose a sky diver and a Congressional Liaison who's en ex-Marine. They have also delivered hardware to government contracts under budget and under schedule, as well as being generally good for a laugh.
This will be interesting.