Space Force to Lead Rocket Cargo Vanguard Program

June 9, 2021 by Reece Nations
Space Force to Lead Rocket Cargo Vanguard Program

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Air Force announced it has designated the United States Space Force as the lead service for its “Rocket Cargo Vanguard Program,” a science and technology effort intended to determine the viability of large commercial rockets for Department of Defense logistics missions.

As part of its ongoing science and technology strategy, Rocket Cargo will be the Air Force’s fourth Vanguard initiative and the first initiative to be led by the Space Force. The program will utilize the Air Force Research Laboratory to study commercial rocket cargo capabilities, possibly “expanding the portfolio of capabilities the USSF presents to combatant commanders,” the branches announced in a joint release.

“The Rocket Cargo Vanguard is a clear example of how the Space Force is developing innovative solutions as a service, in particular the ability to provide independent options in, from, and to space,” Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. Raymond said in a written statement. “Once realized, Rocket Cargo will fundamentally alter the rapid logistics landscape, connecting materiel to joint warfighters in a fraction of the time it takes today. In the event of conflict or humanitarian crisis, the Space Force will be able to provide our national leadership with an independent option to achieve strategic objectives from space.”

While SpaceX is currently the only commercial entity able to launch orbit-class rockets and reuse them after landing, the announcement of the latest Vanguard program could incentivize other companies to boost their development of reusable cargo rockets. 

SpaceX services have been commissioned by the U.S. military in the past. For instance, the company received a $316 million Air Force contract in Aug. 2020 to launch a National Reconnaissance Office satellite in 2022.

Further, TWN previously reported the U.S. Army deployed a constellation of 600 SpaceX Starlink satellites designed to provide internet access to remote regions as part of its “Project Convergence” program.

“The Air Force has provided rapid global mobility for decades and Rocket Cargo is a new way the Department can explore [complementary] capabilities for the future,” Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth said in a written statement. “Vanguard initiatives lead to game-changing breakthroughs that preserve our advantage over near-peer competitors, and this latest addition is also a significant milestone as the first Vanguard evaluated under the Space Force’s oversight.”

The program will study opportunities for commercial rockets to quickly transport DoD materials to ports around the world. Large rockets with reusable stages could be utilized by the branches to expand cargo capacities while simultaneously reducing launch costs.

The other current Vanguard programs include an autonomy core system in a reusable unmanned aerial platform enabling autonomous operations known as “Skyborg,” a flight experiment examining capabilities across the ground, space and user segments to improve space-based positioning and navigation known as “NTS-3,” and an initiative that demonstrates collaborative autonomous networked weapons via the creation of an integrated weapon system known as “Golden Horde.”

“Rapid logistics underpins our ability to project power,” Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, Jr., commander, Air Force Materiel Command, said in a written statement. “That is the fundamental motivation for initiating the Rocket Cargo program. We see its initial applications in swiftly restoring operational capability for forces forward in austere environments as well as dramatically reducing the time required to deliver crucial humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.” 

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