In the future, U.S. troops could be on the ground in hotspots anywhere on the globe in only two hours. This may sound like science fiction, but it is exactly what a group of civilians and military officials met to talk about at a two-day conference.
The meeting's purpose was to plan the development of the Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion (SUSTAIN) program. USA Today reports that the invitation to the conference called the idea a "potential revolutionary step in getting combat power to any point in the world in a timeframe unachievable today."
The biggest challenge for the SUSTAIN program is certainly the technology. Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Brown, a spokesman for the space office said that the next step in the plan is addressing technological challenges and seeking military input.
The goal of the program is to be able to insert a team of 13 soldiers anywhere on the globe in two hours. John Pike, a military analyst told USA Today, "This isn't even science fiction. It's fantasy." Pike says that the concept defies physics and the reality of what a small number of lightly armed troops could accomplish.
Burt Rutan, the rocket pioneer who won the X Prize in 2004 for building a private spacecraft capable of flying into space says that the plan is technologically possible. Rutan wrote in an email to USA Today, "This has never been done. However, it is feasible. It would be a relatively expensive way to get the troops on the ground, but it could be done."
The need for a program like SUSTAIN was restated in 2005 in a document from the Marines titled the Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare Capability List signed by Gen. James Mattis. The document called for the program to be realized as early as 2019.
2005 wasn't the first time military officials have dreamed of inserting soldiers into combat zones from space; the concept has reportedly been discussed sine the 1960's. General Wallace Greene mentioned the capability in a speech from 1963 and hoped Marines would be in space by 1968.
The technology needed for such a force would likely make SUSTAIN a viable program by 2030 according to military analyst Baker Spring. Spring says that it will be just as important for military officials to determine what such a small number of troops could do if they were inserted into a hot zone by rocket.
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the SUSTAIN program in many minds is how safe will it be. Rockets have to be light to reach space and the bulk of their weight is fuel to reach space. Significant challenges for the program will center on a ship that can carry enough fuel to reach space and then be able carry enough fuel for lift off and removing the soldiers from the battlefield.
It would seem that the rocket ship would be very vulnerable as well. It would be virtually impossible to design a ship armored enough to withstand any incoming fire on ascent or decent to a battle. The ship would also not likely be able to carry any weapons of its own.