Cosmic Girl’s Stiletto

By Peter Garretson

Virgin Galactic has done something very clever. For about $4M, they have modified a Boeing 747 to be able to travel as far as 1,000 nm and then launch a small satellite into orbit. This is going to provide industry—and potentially the Air Force—with a responsive launch-on-demand capability it has never had.

The USAF also maintains something called a Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). These aircraft are typically provided by civilian airlines who contract with the US military to be available for mobilization in a time of need. Often, they are paid a premium to keep certain equipment–such as hardened floors that can carry special military payloads even though it adds weight.

Within the CRAF, there are several 747s. Modifying some of those 747s would provide the USAF an unprecedented flexible, responsive space launch capability. Based on Virgin Galactic’s demonstration with Cosmic Girl, the USAF could modify up to 25 aircraft for $100M, or the cost of one F-35. A fleet of 25 aircraft flying around the world providing a flexible space launch capability would also impose significant costs on any adversary looking to degrade or deny US access to space. Twenty-five aircraft that could launch satellites into orbit 1-2 times per day would provide both a significant replenishment capability and a significant theater augmentation capability.

Furthermore, a station capable of holding and launching an orbital-class rocket with a small-sat payload could also support an intercontinental-range, conventional prompt global strike. Such an asset could hold a very long-range Air-to-Air Anti-High Value Airborne Asset missile, a counter-ship missile, or a SEAD/DEAD capability to establish a standoff strike range advantage in an A2AD or Air Sea Battle Environment.

Such a station could also easily host external pods that are far larger than existing platforms can carry. These pods could hold very large RF devices such as radars, jammers, large aperture collectors, transmitters or gateways. New capabilities could be added without significant need for modification and qualification, and it would be relatively easy to trade out such pods.

For a mere $100M, the USAF could gain new resilience, a new attack vector, a significant amount of freedom of action, and impose significant costs on those attempting to counter a novel and currently unchecked capability.

Lt Col Peter Garretson is an Instructor of Joint Warfare at Air University’s Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), and lead for the Air University Space Horizons Research Group, which seeks to “Re-imagine Spacepower in the Age of Asteroid Mining.” Lt Col Garretson has over 50 publications covering space topics, strategic culture, and US military strategy and security cooperation in Asia.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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2 comments

  1. Pete, I see a few problems with your idea:
    1. CRAF aircraft and aircrews are called into service to perform the same role they do for civilians (passenger and/or cargo transportation) for the DoD. As none of them currently perform a space launch mission, this would require additional training and certifications in addition to the modifications to the aircraft. The costs to maintain the crews and aircraft to support space launch would go above and beyond the CRAF charter and would add to your notional $100M budget.
    2. CRAF aircraft and aircrews are called into service by way of the Commander, US Transportation Command in times where DoD airlift requires augmentation. Spacelift is outside of the US Transportation Command’s roles and responsibilities. So now these specially modified aircraft would have conflicting priorities from the DoD…airlift and spacelift…and since spacelift is not Trans Com’s concern, they would likely get utilized as airlift instead of spacelift.
    3. The idea of equipping a civilian aircraft to be used in combat goes against the Geneva Convention, and would give an enemy the justification to attack civilian aircraft just in case it was being used to support combat/intel. The other alternative would be to repaint the aircraft with proper military markings and man with military aircrews, but then they would not be responsive between their civilian and CRAF roles.
    4. If these aircraft did have the ability to do spacelift, combat, and intel (in addition to passengers/cargo), spacelift would likely get the short end of the deal…bombs on target and information about the enemy in real time tend to have priority over launching a small satellite to most combatant commanders.
    5. And if everything did work out for these aircraft to perform spacelift, what would they be launching and how many of them to justify the costs? The main problem with launch on demand is it assumes there are satellites all packed up and ready to be launched on a shelf somewhere. Very few programs have the kind of money to fund this kind of reserve capability. Obviously, the most likely candidate for such a responsive, low earth orbit launch would be something like ORS-1. But ORS-1 took almost 2 years to build and launch, not exactly responsive. If the military chooses to build additional satellites like ORS-1, it is very unlikely they would shelve it once completed and await a situation where it is needed to be launched via this responsive spacelift system, they would want to launch it when it was ready. And with almost 2 years to prepare, the launch would be scheduled via normal channels and not need a CRAF-based responsive spacelift capability.

    I do think the AF should look into such a capability, but not via CRAF.

  2. While the B747 in the CRAF system couldn’t be used militarily, the airlines are shedding them. The AF can get them on the cheap. This capability seems a low cost high payback sort of idea.

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