Semper Fly: Marines in Space

A proposed suborbital space transport will put boots on the ground anywhere in the world in two hours or less. But can it overcome huge technological-and political-hurdles?

For a look at a prototypical Space Marine mission, launch the photo gallery.

As any battlefield commander will tell you, getting troops to the fight can be as difficult as winning it. And for modern-day soldiers, the sites of conflict are so far-flung, and the political considerations of even flying over another country so complicated, that rapid entry has become nearly impossible. If a group of Marine Corps visionaries have their way, however, 30 years from now, Marines could touch down anywhere on the globe in less than two hours, without needing to negotiate passage through foreign airspace. The breathtaking efficiency of such a delivery system could change forever the way the U.S. does battle.

The proposal, part of the Corps’s push toward greater speed and flexibility, is called Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion, or Sustain. Using a suborbital transport-that is, a vehicle that flies into space to achieve high travel speeds but doesn’t actually enter orbit-the Corps will be able, in effect, to instantaneously deliver Marine squads anywhere on Earth. The effort is led by Roosevelt Lafontant, a former Marine lieutenant colonel now employed by the Schafer Corporation, a military-technology consulting firm working with the Marines. Insertion from space, Lafontant explains, makes it possible for the Marines-typically the first military branch called on for emergency missions-to avoid all the usual complications that can delay or end key missions. No waiting for permission from an allied nation, no dangerous rendezvous in the desert, no slow helicopter flights over mountainous terrain. Instead, Marines could someday have an unmatched element of surprise, allowing them to do everything from reinforce Special Forces to rescue hostages thousands of miles away.

“Sustain is simply an ability to move Marines very rapidly from one place to another,” says Marine colonel Jack Wassink, director of the Corps’s Space Integration Branch in Arlington, Virginia, where the program is based. “Space lends itself to that role.”

The program is quickly gaining traction. Congress has expressed interest, because of the obvious usefulness of the capability it promises. And the technologies necessary to make it happen, from hypersonic propulsion systems to new composite materials needed to make the vehicle lightweight yet strong, are in advanced development in military labs across the country. The Marines expect to fly a prototype in 15 years, most likely a two-stage system using a carrier aircraft that will launch a lander into orbit from high altitude. Production models could show up around 2030, a date that isn’t quite as far away as it seems. Consider that the F-22 Raptor fighter is now entering service after 22 years of development.

But the whole idea still rings of science fiction, and the question is whether its proponents can corral the various technologies together to make the project possible. “Sustain is not a pipe dream,” Lafontant says. “It just needs to gel.”

Overstepping Boundaries

Finding routes through diplomatically friendly airspace and then arranging for timely delivery of U.S. forces are key complications, especially on today’s world political stage. Sustain would solve both problems in a single stroke. According to international agreement, a nation’s airspace extends 50 miles from the Earth’s surface, just short of low orbit. A spacecraft would allow the U.S. to step over other countries and insert forces where they’re needed.

Each Sustain lander is intended to hold a squad of 13 Marines. Mounted on wedge-shaped carrier aircraft, the lander would detach, climb, and accelerate with scramjet engines to 100,000 feet and then fire rocket engines to get above 50 miles, following an arc over hostile countries. Composite shields would absorb or deflect the searing heat of reentry as the vehicles angle for the landing zone.

Lafontant arrived at this Space Marines vision after years of analyzing military space needs. A 44-year-old Queens, New York, native who joined the Corps in 1984 as an infantry officer and progressed through Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where he studied space systems operations and joined the small fraternity of Marine Space Operations Officers. In 2001 he took a job in the Pentagon working for the National Reconnaissance Office. He was serving as liaison to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in November 2001 when the Marine Corps launched its deepest air assault ever.

Five hundred Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit prepared to fly 441 miles through the mountains of northern Pakistan in CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters to capture an airstrip near Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was to be the beginning of the first large offensive against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. If all went well, the Marines expected to walk away with Osama bin Laden.

But political considerations sabotaged the mission. For weeks, the Marines had bobbed on the Indian Ocean aboard two assault ships while State Department officials negotiated with Pakistan for the right to fly through the country’s airspace. Pakistan granted access only after winning economic and military concessions that, some say, have reinforced a repressive regime. When U.S. troops finally touched down on November 25, bin Laden’s trail was cold. “We ended up selling our soul to the devil to get through,” Lafontant says. He grew determined to find a way around that sort of diplomatic entanglement. “What if we don’t have to have anybody’s permission?” he asked himself. “What if we just go above and drop in?”

In April of that year, while Marines were bogged down in bloody cave fighting during the hunt for bin Laden, Lafontant had lunch with fellow space expert Franz Gayl in the Pentagon cafeteria. Gayl, also a former Marine with significant influence in the private sector, brainstorms new technologies for the Corps’s Plans, Policies, and Operations Department. Lafontant suggested that a space transport could have allowed Marines to nab bin Laden without a major assault-and before the terrorist leader could disappear into Afghanistan’s caves. Gayl was skeptical of its feasibility-the idea of military space transport has been around for decades yet has never been deemed viable enough to enter active development-but he was impressed by the elegance of the solution and its use of military technology that he knew to be in the works.

Together, Lafontant and Gayl formally presented their concept to Gayl’s boss at the Pentagon, brigadier general Richard Zilmer, and then to lieutenant general Emil Bedard, the office’s deputy commandant, who endorsed it on July 22, 2002, adding space transport to the Marines’ official wish list. But the technology-reusable and advanced propulsion, sophisticated heat shielding-wasn’t ready. Just a year earlier, two joint NASA and Air Force programs to develop similar reusable launch vehicles, or RLVs, had been canceled because of problems with their single-stage engines. The idea was far ahead of the technological curve.

But Lafontant was patient. He continued to refine and promote the space-transport idea until it was a fixture in the collective imagination of the Marines’ space community. Soon Sustain found a home at the Corps’s Space Integration Branch in Virginia, where Wassink directs a 100-person team of satellite technicians who connect Marine commanders to operations around the world. Wassink was interested in the Sustain project, but the Marine Corps is a small force under the umbrella of the Navy and receives just 4 percent of military funding. Sustain is “certainly not something the Marine Corps would be able to acquire on its own,” he admits.

Zilmer agreed and introduced the Sustain concept to Congress. In an address to a Senate committee in July 2003, he outlined the Marine strategy. “We must coordinate and synthesize our technology needs with other Department of Defense and nonmilitary users,” Zilmer told the committee. He mentioned NASA as a possible partner. Lafontant also foresaw the Air Force developing the carrier aircraft and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon’s experimental-science arm, overseeing the design of the lander. Zilmer’s testimony was part of a broad campaign that Lafontant and the other Sustain advocates launched to sell the idea to Congress, NASA, the Air Force and Darpa, and to the industry partners that would build the hardware. “We saw the entire gamut of reactions,” Wassink recalls. “Some people didn’t get past the giggle factor.”

Marines into Space

The Marines have a history of selling risky but revolutionary concepts. They embraced amphibious assault before it became a deciding factor in World War II. They guarded the versatile
V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor plane during its troubled development. And they have championed their share of flops. Their vertical-takeoff AV-8B Harrier crashes more than any other contemporary fighter, and it was the Marine Corps, after all, that seriously investigated attaching incendiary bombs to thousands of bats during World War II.

Sustain is part of the latest in a long legacy of tough sells. But, as the world stage grows more hostile and the need for rapid, flexible deployment grows more intense, Lafontant insists that “the giggle factor is gone now.”

The Sustain program is not only risky, it also requires the cooperation of researchers from multiple branches of the armed forces that are currently developing relevant technologies. The Sustain system will consist of two stages: a launch craft and a lander. In recent years, NASA, the Air Force and the Navy have created programs to develop new RLVs that will use multi-stage systems and a combination of rockets and hypersonic air-breathing boost engines. Vehicles now in development that could be adapted for a Marine carrier aircraft-the first-stage launcher that will carry the actual spaceship-include the hypersonic aircraft Falcon, which skirts the upper atmosphere; the Boeing X-51 and Lockheed Martin Rattlrs (Revolutionary Approach to Time-Critical Long-Range Strike) hypersonic engine testbeds; and the supersecret two-stage spacecraft Hot Eagle. It’s this constellation of programs, along with aviation designer Burt Rutan’s two-stage spaceplanes, that will ultimately yield Sustain’s RLV transport.

Falcon, a $100-million Air Force program intended for low-orbital operations from a runway, is the centerpiece. The first two Falcon vehicles-long, wedge-shaped craft-are under construction by a Lockheed Martin team in Palmdale, California, and are slated to begin testing in 2008.

Rough Landing

At the core of Sustain is the lander-the actual vehicle in which a squad of 13 Marines [see photo gallery] and their gear will float through space, reenter the atmosphere, and come down right on top of their adversaries. The closest thing to a Sustain lander actually flying today is Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, built by Scaled Composites in Mojave, California. In October 2004, SpaceShipOne piggybacked to 40,000 feet on a carrier aircraft and then boosted to 69 miles with its own rocket and landed like an airplane. This singular feat, perhaps more than any other accomplishment by industry or researchers, has energized proponents of Sustain. “Just a scaled-up version of that would do this [Sustain] mission,” said then”Air Force general S. Pete Worden while observing the launch. A lander based on SpaceShipOne would be bigger, tougher and armed-and reconfigured for longer flights, as opposed to the up-and-down trajectory that SpaceShipOne flies-but the basic concept is broadly the same.

Worden, who had heard one of Lafontant’s early Sustain pitches, is now director of the NASA Ames Research Center in California, where he is one of Sustain’s biggest allies. It was the avuncular Worden who lobbied Darpa for help with Sustain. Darpa declined to participate; these days, the agency is focused on near-term projects to support fighting in Iraq. But its position could change, Worden thinks. “If the Air Force pursues this and shows more feasibility, Darpa might be a future player,” he says.

Although a fully evolved lander remains far off, key technologies related to propulsion and heat shields for both the carrier and the lander are well-advanced. These aim to make RLVs such as Sustain robust, responsive and reusable. “One of the critical aspects of Sustain is ultimately the ability to access space with aircraft-like operations,” says Wassink, who is in charge of investigating technologies that could be adapted for Sustain. “It does us no good to have the ability to get anywhere on the globe within two hours if it takes us days to get ready.”

In addition to quicker prelaunch procedures, the program needs durable, reusable heat shields in place of the space shuttle’s fragile ceramic tiles, which require 60 days’ preparation. And whereas two stages are a given, which combination of stages is best depends on who you ask. Even with a hypersonic Falcon first-stage craft, “there are several different approaches” to propulsion, says scientist James Pittman of the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “The use of rockets to boost the vehicle to hypersonic speed is one approach. [Or] you could look at an air-breathing solution from takeoff to hypersonic speed to landing.”

Lockheed’s Rattlrs program may provide key breakthroughs. This $100-million initiative is targeted at creating hypersonic missiles for the Navy, using new alloys, composites and ceramics to allow the engines to withstand extreme heat. The resulting high-speed turbine will eventually appear in RLVs, according to Lockheed’s Craig Johnston. “The turbine-based combined cycle offers probably the greatest promise,” he says, “because it allows you to operate in the low-speed regime much the same way that current aircraft operate.”

There are other hurdles. Dwayne Day, a space analyst, notes that SpaceShipOne is the only successful RLV so far. But, he says, its payload is limited: “If you want to carry a lot of armed combat troops and their equipment, you need a much bigger ship.” Another critic cites the huge challenge of heavily laden long-range spaceflight-something SpaceShipOne doesn’t even come close to accomplishing. “I don’t think you could carry even zero payload and do the [Sustain] mission,” says Preston Carter, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “It’s beyond normal propulsion and normal structures.”

Taylor Dinerman, a space analyst for Space Review, says that Sustain is feasible, given enough time for R&D. The key, he believes, is to pursue the programs that might feed into a transport-and then have the financial support from Congress to push the project through. But once the technological and financial hurdles are overcome, there’s still one that would remain. “Probably the most difficult challenge would be extracting the personnel,” Wassink confesses-that is, bringing them home safely at mission’s end.

Mission Aftermath

The Marines are, historically, excellent at inserting themselves into trouble. It’s the getting out that’s hard. Retaining enough fuel for a brief regular-altitude flight to a nearby base or allied nation is one option. Lafontant and his fellow planners have proposed other methods of extraction. The lander might have enough fuel to fly all the way back home under its own power, or, if the vehicle is small enough, it might deploy a parachute and be snagged midair by a cargo aircraft. Finally, because it’s the speed of insertion, not the round trip, the extraction might require less urgency. The Marines and the landers could simply be retrieved by more conventional means.

At this point-in the aftermath-the diplomatic challenge might truly rear its head. Although getting over an altitude of 50 miles officially clears a nation’s sovereign airspace, exploiting this loophole is bound to cause political problems, something that is already being foreshadowed in the Bush administration’s new space policy, released in October, which declares the administration’s intention to exploit space for military purposes. Sustain doesn’t solve the diplomatic problems it creates-indeed, the project could simply cause countries to raise the upper limits of their air space-but it unquestionably redefines the notion of rapid insertion.

Whether or not Sustain ever
makes it past the concept stage, it’s clear that military planners are looking to increase the mobility of American forces. A Marine space transport-one that would reduce politically charged bureaucratic delays and the potential for mission snafus-might sound impossible, but to Lafontant and others entrusted with imagining the future of war, it is simply the next logical step.

Washington, D.C.”based writer David Axe writes for Defense Technology International_. His book about the ROTC,_ Army 101_, was published in December._