Both Popular Science and Popular Mechanics feature an article by a Defense Tech writer about a U.S. Marine Corps plan to build a space plane that could deliver thirteen Marines anywhere in the world in two hours. Oh, and they still need to land somewhere (at least a field airstrip or open flat space) and haven't figured out how to make the space plane take a return trip either. [Correction: The Popular Mechanics article is about long range hypersonic missiles that just look like space planes, another non-existent problem with U.S. forces which are good at hitting fixed targets half the world away, but not so hot at fighting counterinsurgencies. Both articles are written by Defense Tech writers.]
Marines Aren't Jedi Knights
This would be great if the U.S. Marine Corps consisted of a few dozen Jedi Knights or X-Men, who are unreproduceable, have superhuman fighting ability, and gear payloads that can fit in a single piece of carry on luggage. But, it doesn't.
We have no soldiers so elite that we can't position equally able Marine squads at a dozen or so spots around the globe to reduce the transportation demands, if we want a rapid reaction small unit capability. And, the military effectiveness of the U.S. military comes from pairing moderately above average people to exceptional equipment and training, and that exceptional equipment is hard to fit on a C-130 cargo plane, let alone a carry on bag.
Expensive Solutions Looking For Problems
The space plane program, and other similar very expensive methods of delivering a small number of special forces behind enemy lines such as a very expensive submarine based approach, all suffer from the same difficulty. They solve a problem the United State military had licked in 1941, with a solution called paratroopers, which still works. We can deliver small units of lightly armed special forces troops anywhere in the world, on short notice, and this is particularly easy if a return flight doesn't have to be arranged, so parachutes and airdrops can be used.
We have miraculous technologies like ships with helicopters or tilt wing aircraft on them that can be positioned near any likely hot spots well in advance of the conflict, and the vast majority of hot spots are within two hours by Osprey (a hybrid plane-helicopter that the Marines just purchased) from international waters. If speed were really an issue, AV-8B Harrier pilots (soon to be replaced by F-35B pilots) are cross trained as riflemen anyway and a squadron of them could fly in individual fighter aircraft and dismount upon arrival, deploying from aircraft carriers or Marine amphibious assault ships, at fairly high altitudes, in comparable times to U.S. based space planes, with no new R&D costs and no retrieval problems. This would also provide the arriving Marines with far more serious firepower than a space plane.
The Air Force can act with similar speed to reach inland targets from U.S. air bases abroad, which no hot spot is more than about 4,000 miles from and most are much closer to. Also, every U.S. embassy in the world has Marine guards who can simply get in a Humvee and drive to the crisis point, and if need be, the special operations soldiers can go undercover, take commercial planes to the nearest functional airport, and use $100 bills to purchase ground transporation to the hotspot. Weapons can be airdroped, by stealth bomber if necessary.
If we simply need to blow up fixed targets, we have fighters on air craft carriers and at U.S. air bases abroad that can do the job at several times the speed of sound, stealth bombers, and the F-22, in addition to long range ballistic missles that could be fitted with conventional warheads, and ship and submarine based cruise missiles that are all well equipped for the job.
Also, military disasters rarely happen on only two hours notice. If the CIA and mass media and state department are doing their jobs, we know days in advance when trouble is brewing.
The Real Problem
The real deployment problem the U.S. military faces is not prompt one way transporation of single squads of lightly armed elite troops. It is prompt deployment of military units which are large enough, and heavily armed enough, to be a formidable opponent to second and third world conventional military forces in a particular theater of battle.
(For reference purposes, a squad sized light infantry unit can be deployed in a Black Hawk sized helicopter of which there are many hundreds, if not thousands, a small platoon can be deployed by the largest transport helicopters, which are more scarce, and a C-130, which we also have hundreds of, can deploy a small company of Marines.)
Getting an armored or mechanized infantry division (is there any difference any more, both are large units with tanks, heavy artillery and Bradley fighting vehicles, in addition to some helicopters) or even an air assault division (i.e. a large unit with an emphasis on attack helicopters) to a distant battlefield can take months. It is done by a combination of freight rail, cargo ship, convoy (which has a long logistics tail to supply fuel and provisions), and transport plane (the largest of which requires a conventional runway, the smallest of which have relatively short ranges, and the intermediate of which are scarce).
The real power projection developments in military procurement are less glamorous, but do have genuine military value. They main elements are:
(1) Buy more tranport planes.
a. Much of what we have is too light.
We have lots of C-130s and transport helicopters. They just can't carry lots of equipment that is needed for medium and heavy weight troops. Bradleys, tanks, and conventional self-propelled artillery are too heavy. The Marine's Osprey and all but the largest transport helicopters can't even carry a Humvee.
b. We have too few C-17s.
C-17s are long range, medium sized transport planes can land on field airstrips and carry a single tank or a couple of Bradleys. They do what we need them to do. We simply don't have enough of them to transport a substantial force quickly. The C-130 is too small to carry heavy equipment and has a comparatively short range. The C-5 needs a real airport.
c. Is there a gap between the C-130 and the C-17?
Also, many observers think that the U.S. military needs new cargo planes between a C-17 and C-130 in size, that can carry anything smaller than a heavy main battle tank, as a next generation replacement for the C-130. The question is whether a smaller per unit cost than a C-17 is worth it, given the R&D expense involved in creating an entirely new class of aircraft. The alternative would be to simply buy more C-17s, which carry more cargo and require no new R&D expenses or production delays.
d. Fixed wing alternatives to transport helicopters.
And, many observers also think that sub-C-130 fixed wing cargo aircraft, to carry payload comparable to those of heavy transport helicopters in situations where field airstrips are available, because fixed wing cargo aircraft have longer ranges, use less fuel per mile, are faster, are cheaper and are more reliable for transporting comparable payloads than transport helicopters. Reasonably priced off the shelf alternatives are available.
Finally, I am among at least a handful of observers who think that the U.S. military, and the U.S. Marine Corps in particular, would benefit from a modest fleet of sea planes. The Marine Expeditionary Vehicle (or whatever they're calling it this week, it has had many names over its development) can self-deploy from a ship 30 miles out at sea without a landing craft at speeds comparable to existing landing craft, and has capabilities comparable to an Army Stryker (common in Iraq). Why not eliminate the middle man of the deploying ship in small conflicts, and instead simply have the MEVs deployed and retrieved via seaplane from over the horizon? A couple dozen such planes, which could be based on C-130 or C-17 designs, would not be a major technological challenge. Similar planes exist in the Russian air force and were used in World War II. These seaplanes could also be used for deployments of heavier than special forces units to inland lakes.
Seaplanes would also be well suited to search and rescue (SAR) duty.
(2) High speed, relatively small cargo ships.
A few experiments along these lines have proven successful. A catamaran or trimaran hull design is used, and cargo loads, while as little as 10% of a full sized cargo ship, are still considerably larger than the largest cargo plane in U.S. service, the aging C-5. This can trim weeks of deployment times for large, heavy units, and allow swift intratheater shifts of forces in coastal areas.
They are similar in concept to the littoral combat ship, the newest class of ship in the Navy, and a much needed antidote to a blue sea, billion dollar plus per ship orientation in the U.S. Navy,
(3) C-130 sized version of heavier weapons.
One way to capitalize on the large number of C-130s available in the military is to make weapons systems they can actually carry.
These include the HIMARS reduced sized multiple rocket launcher, the Stryker (most versions of which are light weight, more deployable alternatives to the Bradley fighting vehicle), and the Stryker Mobile Gun System (a light weight, wheeled infantry support tank).
None of these C-130 sized systems are a match in armor or lethality to their heavy weight counterparts like the M1 Abrams tank, and the M2 Bradley and its variants, but getting these 30 ton plus systems to the field is much harder, because only the C-17 can airlift them close to the battlefield, each trip can't take many, and we don't have many C-17s. But, each is a considerable improvement over the only other option for quick deployments, which was paratroopers (aka speed bumps), who were basically limited to unarmored, more lightly armed, Humvee based systems.
Also, most military forces in the world don't have huge, top of the line, conventional armored military forces like the Soviet military that the U.S. military's heaviest systems were designed to fight. Most possible surprise deployments of U.S. forces are to places like Somolia or Rwanda or Sudan or Colombia, where opposition forces make the Iraqi Army and Serbian Army whom the U.S. has engaged in the past with little opposition once ground forces were committed, look impressive by comparison.
In the few cases where opponents do have those forces another option comes into play.
(4) Pre-positioned caches of heavy military equipment close to potential hot spots.
It takes months to deploy heavy forces only if you have to move them thousands of miles. If you know that you are going to want them, for example, in Poland or Turkey or South Korea, in contrast, months of transport time in peacetime is no big deal, and the equipment will be there waiting for you when you need it.
Similarly, if we were considering getting involved, for example, in a counterinsurgency operation in an evolving conflict in Liberia or Angola or Argentina, far from U.S. bases, it might be easier to simply have a couple of large, old fashioned, roll on, roll off, cargo ships fully loaded with heavy military equipment quietly move into position a couple of days off shore from a planned deployment point (i.e. about 600 miles away), months in advance in the open sea. This would require the U.S. to have excess quantities of some heavy equipment, but we already have excesses of some types of equipment (alas, not the kinds getting heavy use in Iraq), and could buy excess supplies for a price very competitive with the cost of buying more expensive transport planes or high speed transport ships. The U.S. already does this to be prepared for a conflict in Taiwan.
The Wrong Problem?
This isn't to say that the space plane concept is entirely without merit, but it misapprehends which passengers are most likely to be needed on very short notice, from the continental U.S., to anyplace in the world. Jar heads dashing off to assassinate terrorists aren't on that list, even really well trained special operations jar heads.
The sort of person who might need that kind of rapid deployment would be a specialist neurosurgeon needed for time critical brain surgery in a field hospital, or an F-22 avionics design engineer to address an unanticipated problem with enemy jamming technology, or a linguist who speaks an obscure language needed for an interrogation where a time bomb is ticking or a hostage situation is deteriorating.
These kinds of people with specialized skills are in jobs that would more often be carried out in the field from a relatively secure forward operating base with a partially improved or fully improved landing strip, in situations where a slow turnaround via piggy back on a C-17 might be a viable retrieval method for the vehicle. The people deployed might return by more conventional means, like transport planes or VIP planes. And, 13 passengers is probably more than is necessary for these kinds of missions. Half or a third of that number of passengers might be sufficient in most cases where a team with special skills is needed.
And, a small fleet of space planes (perhaps just three or four) designed to go one way and be ferried back via C-17, to land on secure, partially improved airstrips, and to carry just 4-6 passengers needed for their specialized skills, might cost less to design and build than the more ambitious plan envisioned by the Marine Corps.