(Correction: Space companies potentially could provide cargo services to the U.S. military in a voluntary partnership similar to how air cargo operators provide peacetime airlift. An earlier version of the story incorrectly suggested rocket operators could join CRAF.)
The U.S. military’s top transportation commander said he envisions contracting for terrestrial cargo service delivered by rocket ships along the lines of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program that funnels business to carriers providing standby airlift during times of national emergency.
“We are thinking about this in a very similar model to CRAF, where you have a commercial partner that presents capability to the Department of Defense,” U.S. Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, said during a virtual address to the Airlift/Tanker Association conference last week.
There are 25 carriers and 423 aircraft enrolled in the voluntary program, according to the latest data from Air Mobility Command.
Under CRAF, airlines contractually commit to supplement military air transport of troops and equipment during wartime or other emergencies. To encourage carriers to participate, only CRAF partners can bid on government airlift contracts issued through the Defense Department during peacetime.
Under agreements with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corp., USTRANSCOM is studying the potential use of rockets to deliver large cargo loads around the world in less than an hour.
The partners plan to conduct a proof-of-concept trial next year to evaluate the capabilities, limitations and technical/policy gaps associated with point-to-point, space-based delivery, according to USTRANSCOM.
Other next steps in developing commercial space logistics include developing a use doctrine, obtaining diplomatic approvals for operating in other countries, establishing legal standards and organizing personnel to manage high-frequency space launches.
“Forward thinking like this enhances the options of dynamic force employment. It also places global logistics at the tip of the spear and will provide commanders new options,” stated U.S. Air Force Col. Max Bremer, an official at North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Space Command. “The use of space for military logistics could be the biggest game changer since the development of cargo aircraft.”