Department of the Air Force announces fourth Vanguard program

WASHINGTON (AFNS) – The Department of the Air Force announced June 4 the designation of Rocket Cargo as the fourth Vanguard program as part of its transformational science and technology portfolio identified in the DAF 2030 Science and Technology strategy for the next decade. Additionally, the U.S. Space Force was designated as the lead service for Rocket Cargo Vanguard, marking the service’s first such program.

Under the Rocket Cargo Vanguard, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) will lead a science and technology effort to determine the viability and utility of using large commercial rockets for Department of Defense global logistics, potentially expanding the portfolio of capabilities the USSF presents to combatant commanders. The Space and Missile Systems Center will serve as the Program Executive Officer.

AFRL will research and develop the unique aspects needed to leverage the new commercial capability for the DoD logistics mission. This includes the ability to land a rocket on a wide range of non-traditional materials and surfaces, including at remote sites. In addition, AFRL scientists and engineers will research the ability to safely land a rocket near personnel and structures, engineer a rocket cargo bay and logistics for rapid loading and unloading, and air drop cargo from the rocket after re-entry in order to service locations where a rocket or aircraft cannot possibly land.

“The Air Force has provided rapid global mobility for decades and Rocket Cargo is a new way the Department can explore complimentary capabilities for the future,” said Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth. “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.”

Based on the advertised commercial capability and business objectives, the AFRL is currently assessing emerging rocket capability across the commercial vendor base, and its potential use for quickly transporting DoD materiel to ports across the globe.

“The Rocket Cargo Vanguard is 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,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond. “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.”

Delivering cargo via rocket transportation is not a new concept. Historically the high costs of launch have been prohibitive for a logistics-focused application, and the relatively small payload capability constrained the types of cargo that could be delivered, also limiting its suitability. Today several commercial companies are quickly generating new opportunities by developing large rockets and reusable stages that safely land back on earth, expanding cargo capacity and dramatically reducing launch costs.

“Rapid logistics underpins our ability to project power,” said Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, Jr., Air Force Materiel Command commander. “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.”

Under the new Rocket Cargo Vanguard, the DAF will seek to leverage these commercial advances and position the DoD to be an early adopter of the new commercial capability. This approach is a marked departure from the past, where the U.S. government led rocket technology development and bore the brunt of the cost. Today, with the commercial space launch providers developing the advanced rockets, the DAF will instead primarily invest in the S&T needed to quickly adapt the capability to the DoD logistics missions, and then be the first customer procuring the new commercial capability through service leases.

The military utility of the new capability includes support to the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) resupply mission, with faster delivery and potentially at lower cost. AFRL is closely partnered with USTRANSCOM to assess the trade space of a potential Rocket Cargo capability for global logistics, including potential improvements in delivery cost and speed compared to existing air cargo operations. Potential mission applications include Special Airlift to deliver equipment needed to quickly restore a loss of mission operations, and humanitarian aid and disaster relief payloads to stricken areas.

Rocket Cargo joins three current Vanguard programs, including Skyborg (an initiative to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) with autonomous Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) to enable manned-unmanned teaming); NTS-3 (a flight experiment to examine and field capabilities across the ground, space and user segments to enhance space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT)); and Golden Horde (an initiative to demonstrate collaborative autonomous networked weapons by creating an integrated weapon system where different technologies work together to defeat targets).

Vanguard programs rapidly advance emerging weapon systems and warfighting concepts through prototyping and experimentation. With these programs, the DAF aims to deliver game changing new operational capabilities that provide warfighters with superior advantages on the battlefield in the next decade.

illustration of rocket

Rocket Cargo would enable rapid delivery of aircraft-size payloads for agile global logistics such as urgent humanitarian assistance and disaster response. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Randy Palmer)