Sopwith Camels and 747s - The BFR's Military and Strategic Implications

Last month, Elon Musk gave us a new, revised version of the SpaceX development roadmap. Last year’s ITS is now a (slightly) smaller BFR. But small is a bad descriptor for what SpaceX calls  with perfect justice the Big Fucking Rocket.

Even a precis of the BFR is rather epic. 150 tons to low earth orbit. Fully reusable. Three times the payload of the previous biggest fucking rocket - the Saturn V, yet only a fraction of the cost per launch. Mars missions, lunar bases, point to point ballistic transport on Earth... and all by itself, the second stage is a low payload single stage to orbit craft. (Albeit with low payload compared to the full BFR stack.)

Awesome, in the original constituted entirely of awe sense.

There are a couple grains of salt we must gnaw upon though. First, Musk has a lamentable habit of overpromising. But as one wit noticed, if you convert human years to Mars-length Musk years, you can usually have a decent idea of what the actual timeline will be. Second, The BFR is largely - though not entirely - vaporware at this point. 

Yet we have some mitigating reasons to be optimistic. SpaceX has mastered the basic technologies that will be used in the BFR. Most important, the reusable boosters and propulsive landing. SpaceX has made significant progress on the most important single piece of the new BFR, the Raptor engine. It works, and all that remains is the relatively straightforward development work to make it a production scale product. 

Beyond the technical, SpaceX’s existing business is beginning to rake in the cash, and is poised to utterly dominate next year’s launch market. This year, they’ve already launched more rockets than any other company - or nation. The Falcon Heavy first launch is expected within a month. Though Musk might be late, he usually does deliver. And right now, he and SpaceX are on a big roll.

Sometime in the next five years or so, the first working BFR could launch. What does it all mean?

Is it a DC-3 or a 707?

Some have compared the BFR to the DC-3, or the Boing 707. These comparisons aren’t entirely misplaced - each of those forerunner aircraft had immense significance, opening up practical air travel in the propeller and jet ages respectively. 

Cheap, reliable air travel requires at least one industry - the manufacture in bulk of cheap, reliable aircraft. Obviously though, that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Those aircraft must be purchased by people who think they can use them to make a profit, or accomplish some purpose. Here’s where things get interesting.

First is the virtuous cycle. You make a DC-3, it’s popular. People buy them to move passengers, cargo, mail. Governments buy them to move troops, implements of war, or VIPs. Money flows into your coffers. You buy a pony, and use the rest to design and manufacture the DC-8, and then the 707. Eventually, you’ve got 747s that dwarf the payload, speed, and (inversely) the price per pound per mile of moving things you had when you started with your DC-3.

Second is the parallel development of civil and military aircraft. The long range civilian DC-3 used the same technologies as the long range military B-17. In fact, the Douglas Aircraft Company built both of them in WWII, even though the B-17 was a Boeing design. Advances on one side generally sooner or later made an appearance on the other. Jet engines designed for fighter planes evolved into engines for civilian jetliners. Often, civilian cargo designs were repurposed for military use in airlift or as tankers for in-flight refueling. 

There is no such thing as a purely civilian advance in transportation technology.

A better transport is a better bomber. A more fuel efficient engine is a longer-range fighter. And so on...

***

Besides being an industry in and of itself, aircraft created entirely novel industries and made other things possible. Airmail, air freight - FedEx wouldn’t exist without inexpensive air travel, and neither would west coast major league baseball teams.

In this light, we can see that the BFR could easily have a similar effect. It becomes an industry in and of itself: the building of spaceships. It creates or facilitates industries - space freight, satellite launch, or others.

All good, right?

That's Not It, Though

But all of that misses the real point.

Right now, there are two types of rockets. Elon Musk’s, and everyone else’s. And the gap between the two is getting vastly bigger by the day. 

Space-X’s Falcon-9 as a mostly reusable rocket - if we’re making DC-3 analogies, we already have that one. The Falcon 9 is fully operational at this moment, and it allows SpaceX to dramatically undercut everyone else in the launch market. And they’ve barely begun reusing the things. Even new Falcon 9’s are cheaper. When SpaceX starts reusing rockets in bulk, when SpaceX starts flying the Falcon Heavy, and then re-flying the Falcon Heavy - this is a huge gap in performance, cost and capability. One that exists now or will by next Tuesday; and will widen even without considering any future development from SpaceX.

Only one other company is even in the planning stages for a rocket that could compete with SpaceX’s current vehicle, and that’s Blue Origin. They haven’t flown an orbital vehicle yet. The rocket that will power their competing spacecraft is still in development - though it has made its first successful burn. Now, they may achieve success, but they are years behind SpaceX. 

The rest of the aerospace industry is literally decades behind, and shows little evidence of adapting to survive the new commercial space environment born in the current year. Arianespace, Boeing, Lockheed, the Russkis, the Chinese - all are continuing to build, and continuing to announce the design of new rockets that are exactly like the rockets the world has been building for the last half-century.

Prime example: ULA (Boeing and Lockheed) is developing the Vulcan rocket. From Wikipedia:

A later feature is planned to make the first stage partly reusable. ULA plans to develop the technology to allow the engines to detach from the vehicle after cutoff, descend through the atmosphere with a heat shield and parachute, and finally be captured by a helicopter in mid-air.

Yep this is going to be competitive with the Falcon 9, whose first stage is already fully reusable, especially since the first launch is scheduled for two years from now, and the whole helicopter-engine-grabbing feature will only arrive on later models.

Bonus example: NASA's SLS Rocket. From an Ars Technica article:

It is physically possible for NASA to make a launch date in 2019, but historically things can (and often do) go wrong in the assembly and testing of major launch systems. While it is possible to beat the odds or resolve problems quickly, there is no guarantee that will happen between now and a 2019 launch date.

Using technology that has been in existence since the 1970s, NASA might just manage to launch something three years from now, after over a decade of work.

Mad Scientist Musk Goes Back in Time

Let’s imagine a world. It’s something like 1914, and you’ve got a whole bunch of companies laboriously building wood and canvas airplanes with simple and low power engines. In a world that just a short while back didn’t have flying machines, they’re a marvel. It’s the most advanced technology of the age, and the designers’ smarts have become a byword for smarts itself.

And they’re useful. You can do aerial reconnaissance. You can fly a passenger or two or maybe a small cargo a distance of a couple hundred miles. The bolder thinkers have already imagined the uses to which more advanced airplanes might be put. A bigger plane, or a longer range plane; well, you could achieve wonders.

Then imagine that someone figures out how to make planes of similar capability. Only difference, instead of costing a million dollars a piece, they cost $250k. Huge impact, huge business advantage for that inventor and his company. He can quickly corner the market on aircraft manufacturing by undercutting his competitors and still making a huge profit. And new things become possible. At this price, you can afford to buy a whole bunch of planes and use them to carry high-value (but small) cargos around. Air mail is born.

Now, WWI isn’t much effected. There’s no new capabilities on offer - just a price advantage for the side that has our clever business man residing in it. Country A gets cheap, capable fighter planes. They can field more of them, perhaps. Be a little more reckless in their use, wring more advantage out of them. But all in all, more or less the same.

But further suppose that in his volcanic lair, this man is building something else. He’s building a Boeing 747. And it will cost only half again as much as the best of his competitors’ airplanes. But its performance is so much greater that really, its not even the same sort of thing.

“Amazing!” you say. And it would be. 

What could you do with a Boeing 747 that you couldn’t with a Sopwith Camel? 

***

In our imaginary world, Country X now has a modestly tame evil genius. He’s developing his 747, and in a couple years, the first one will fly. What might the statesmen and leaders of Country X imagine might be done with this technological marvel?

The evil genius thinks he’s going to fly to Antarctica, because it’s cool there, and he can claim all the land that isn’t inhabited by Scott’s ghost or penguins. So that’s one plan. He also allows that you could use the 747 for more pedestrian tasks like flying lots of people from city to city, or other just as dreadfully boring things.

But the Country X's proto-Army Air Corps generals might have a few thoughts.   

Instead of throwing a grenade over the side of your Sopwith Camel, bombing would be dropping 100+ tons of high explosives from a height no artillery, and no existing fighter can reach. Aerial reconnaissance is flying with impunity over any territory in the world, with a full crew of photographers and a photo lab, and advanced wireless telegraphy gear to communicate the intelligence back to the ground in real time.

The obvious things are extensions of what is already possible. But some clever Napoleon will realize that you can put a regiment of troops on one of these things, and have them anywhere in the world in less than a day. And since they only cost a little more than a Sopwith Camel, you can buy as many as you like and move whole armies. (Remember, WWI was caused in part by railway mobilization schedules.)

These are just the military implications. For Country X, they now have a capability that, though not new in the sense that aircraft have been in existence for a decade, is entirely new because it is so much more capable than anything previous. 

And other businessmen might have some ideas about what uses a 747 could be put to. FedEx. Bulk air freight. Trancontinental passenger airlines. All of which are vastly profitable, and could not exist until the 747 comes into existence.

This is the BFR.

Not Just a Big Fucking Rocket

I’m arguing that the BFR is not just a Big Fucking Rocket. 

It has a greater payload capacity by far than any previous rocket. Its cost, per pound to orbit, will be cheaper than any other rocket. Its absolute cost to construct is in the same ballpark as a large jetliner. Its reusability, even if not at airline levels of turnaround, are beyond anything currently in existence.

A single BFR cargo launch is the equivalent of about seven Falcon 9 launches. Two BFR launches is therefore equivalent to   matching the entire 2017 SpaceX manifest. Eight BFR launches is the entire world’s 2017 launch manifest. One BFR, going up every six weeks.

So let’s just assume that after the first prototype BFRs start flying in 2022-2023, production BFRs are coming off the line at about six a year starting in 2024. SpaceX spends 2024 testing their new birds, refining launch procedures and logistics, settling in and learning what it takes to make these things fly. By Christmas 2024, they’ve got it locked down, and they’re ramping up to one launch per week for each BFR. On New Year’s Day 2025, you have eight operating BFRs, each capable of one launch a week. 

On Jan 7, 2025, Elon matched the entire world’s launch capacity for the entire year 2017. And he can do it again, every single week.

With a new BFR entering service every four weeks, by the end of the year SpaceX has a throughput to orbit two orders of magnitude greater than the entire world’s 2017 launch capacity. (And about a quarter of that number was thanks to the 2017 edition SpaceX.)

Today, airlines operate thousands of 747s and other aircraft - and the world’s militaries operate thousands of fighters and bombers. It will take some time, but soon we will have tens, and then hundreds of BFRs. 

The BFR is the whole stack, but it might be helpful to distinguish the parts. The BFB is the booster, which will be standard for all launches. However, the BFS - the upper stage of the BFR - will come in several versions. Musk has already mentioned the tanker, cargo, and two kinds of passenger versions (one configured like an airliner, one for long-duration missions with cabins.) Without question, more variants are possible.

What the BFR Can Do

A big question is whether the market can expand to match this capacity. But that’s also a dumb question. Did airlines every have a problem finding people to ride their planes, or cargo to fill them? As the price comes down - and with BFR, it will be very much down, demand will increase. People, companies, institutions will all find that yes, they can use space transportation. Again, the most obvious use is for the things we already do - but can now do ten times faster or better.

Point to point transportation

Fedex will want to buy a dozen BFR-Cs and tell you that when it absolutely, positively, has to be there in four hours - it will be, even if the destination is on the other side of the world. UPS will want to buy another dozen - and at the very least, both companies will be booking space on the regular.

Point to point, on-Earth transport can be huge, provided that the cost and reliability are there. Southwest Airlines is  certainly going to want a number of BFRs, but they’ll be competing with Elon and SpaceX for that market. There is a market for expensive but very, very fast transport of people and things - 80 years of air travel has proven this beyond any question.

Satellites

The existing market for satellites is small because of two factors. Satellites are expensive, and launches are expensive. Lowering the second factor will cause a reduction in the former. If you can launch a satellite for the same price as shipping something to Australia on a 747, you don’t need to spend millions of dollars to ensure the same level of reliability.

Instead of one $100 million dollar satellite, you launch a hundred $100k satellites for the same level of service or better - and pocket 90% of the costs. SpaceX itself is already planning a constellation of thousands of satellites to provide low cost, high bandwidth internet globally. The very fact that you can launch just about anything means that just about anything will. 

Universities will launch low cost research satellites. Small start up telecoms will launch hundreds of satellites. Big telecoms will launch thousands. The US military will launch more reconnaissance satellites. New weather sats. When cost per pound to orbit drops to air freight levels, everything we do in space now we can do on a broader, cheaper and better basis.

These denser networks of inexpensive sats will allow better communications, better data, more information about our world. Cheap orbital telescopes will give us a better picture of the larger universe. 

New purposes

For all of our history as a space-faring species, most of the things we’ve put in orbit have had one of two purposes: watch things or talk to things. As outlined above, we’ll be doing a lot more of that. But then there’s all the things we’ve thought of but never did because the cost was just too damn much. Most of these involve people living in space. 

One of the largest beneficiaries of BFR technology will be Bigelow aerospace. Right now, Bigelow is a William Penn who’s just been granted all the land in Pennsylvania. Unlike Penn, he has to wait for someone to invent the ships that will allow him to profit off of all that land. He’s a space real estate company in waiting.

Bigelow is already building and testing inflatable habs on the ISS. They’re working on a bigger model - the B330. Once inflated, the B330 has 1/3 the pressurized volume of the current ISS. It weighs a bit less than 25 tons, and its collapsed dimensions (near as I can figure*) are 2.5m in diameter and 5m long. That’s small enough that you could pack the BFR to its maximum payload weight with these things - take six into orbit, and boom, you’ve tripled the total available orbital real estate in one launch.

With 150 tons to low earth orbit and on-orbit refueling, building space stations is a trivial exercise - especially if you’re using expandable habs. Placing space stations wherever you want them isn’t much of an issue either. Haul them collapsed to where you want in the BFR, add water, instant space station. It took dozens of shuttle launches to build the ISS, and it cost well north of a $100 billion. One launch, you get something twice as spacious. (~$150 million per B330, plus connectors and whatnot, plus 40mil for launch. Call it one billion, ten fold decrease in price.)

Another option would be to launch the station into LEO. The BFR goes about its business. Construct a framework around your expandable habs and tack a motor on to the back. Now you’ve got a slowish but spacious and useful spaceship. 

Building a moon base is barely more complicated, given that the BFS could land on the moon and return without refueling. Attach habs to asteroids. Land them on Mars. Float them on balloons in Venus’ upper atmosphere. 

Further out into space we could do Elon’s little Mars trip, for starters. But think also how much better NASA’s deep space probes could be if they were 20 tons instead of half a ton, and got to their destination in months instead of years. Manned or unmanned asteroid sample return missions. Missions to Jupiter or Saturn are possible with the BFS, or with interplanetary ships that the BFR could easily loft into orbit.

Closer in, garbage scows to remove broken or dead satellites. Research facilities, hotels, amusement parks... The possibilities, truly, are endless.

Military uses

Just by making use of SpaceX-operated launches, the military and intelligence agencies would deploy better recon sats, better surveillance sats, higher bandwidth military communications networks. Better, more accurate GPS systems. All of this would parallel the commercial uses that companies world wide would likely jump on with both feet.

Military programs long thought impossible are now possible. The THOR weapon system could be put in place with as little as a dozen launches. Pin point, global, non-nuclear capability to destroy just about anything. Using a militarized B330, you’ve got instant military space stations for all sorts of needs.

If the US Air Force - or, ever more likely, a US Space Force - started buying and operating their own BFRs, even more possibilities open up. Just as FedEx and Southwest Airlines could get you or your packages to the antipodes in less than an hour, a military spacelift capability could put soldiers and equipment anywhere on the same timeframes.

The BFR has a cargo capacity slightly larger than the USAF C-5 Galaxy. It’s 13 hours from New York to the Middle East. If the BFR could actually do rapid turnaround, it could make that flight six times before the C-5 touched down. Which means that functionally, the BFR has six times the cargo capacity of the C-5.

Once in orbit, the BFS is a capable platform, with fuel for a fair amount of orbital maneuvering. With the tanker assets that Musk is already planning, a refueled BFR upper stage would have a lot of delta-V. A military version of the BFS would be a powerful ASAT platform, an orbital bomber, or assault vehicle for deploying space-trained special forces to whatever target they needed to assault.

And just as easily as civilian bases could be assembled rapidly using the Bigelow B330, military stations could be built. While an orbital space station is necessarily vulnerable to attack, thanks to the fragility of the station and the harsh environment of space, the utility of a manned space base will probably be too great to pass up. The most likely use for a manned military station is as a orbital version of a forward air base. Space Force BFR upper stages could dock, refuel, rearm, switch crews, without having to waste precious fuel returning to the surface. 

In time, though, new weapons would be developed, and deployed to space by the BFR. Dedicated, on-orbit fighters could be brought up by a BFR cargo mission, and be used for anti-satellite or anti-station missions. Assault landers, brought up by BFR and something like a small shuttle in design could drop a squad of commandos anywhere on the globe. Space based weaponry along the lines of the old Star Wars missile defense program could be tested.

What Does it All Mean?

All of this is literally just off the top of my head. Deeper thought would no doubt reveal even more uses. Most important though, there’s only two groups going to be operating the BFR in the near future - SpaceX and perhaps a small selection of other American Companies; and the US Government - specifically, the US Air or Space Force.

The US is going to have a short but significant window - a monopoly on cheap, bulk access to space. For a decade, maybe more, the United States will have sole possession of the only true spaceship. (And, maybe two if Bezos gets his New Glenn flying.) No other power will have anything comparable. 

This is potentially more, destabilizing than the invention of the atomic bomb. Yet the only people who seem to be discussing the military uses and implications of the BFR seems to be Brian Wang at NextBigFuture and a couple people on Reddit. 

The United States will have the 747, and everyone else will still be flying Sopwith Camels. We’d best figure out what to do.

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