Spacex BFR and developing the high ground is the geopolitical game changer

There is a lot of talk about a hypersonic weapons arms race to create missiles and then a decade later hypersonic drones and then a decade after that hypersonic spy planes and fighter planes.

It will cost tens of billions to develop these weapons for the USA, China, Russia and other nations.

However, the USA will be gifted complete space dominance via Spacex fully reusable rockets. The US already has superior space capabilities versus other countries.

In Elon Musk’s video announcement of the Spacex BFR he indicated that it would be lower cost to launch than the Spacex Falcon 1. A graphic showed the Spacex BFR at lower cost than the Falcon 1.

In 2005 Falcon 1 was advertised as costing $5.9 million ($7.3 million when adjusted for inflation in 2015). In 2006 until 2007 the quoted price of the rocket when operational was $6.7 million. In late 2009 SpaceX announced new prices for the Falcon 1 and 1e at $7 million and $8.5 million respectively, with small discounts available for multi-launch contracts.

This would mean at $7 million the Spacex BFR launch 150 tons would have less than a $50 per pound launch cost.

By 2025, there could be a fleet of 100 BFR. Each could be flying 10-50 times per year if there the market for launches can be grown with $40-200 per pound launch costs.

The USA could triple that production and buy a separate fleet of 200 Spacex BFR. If each cost $200 million, then it would cost $40 billion. This would be less than the planned spend for the Space Launch System which would have one or two flights per year. The USA could fly each 50 times and get 10,000 launches per year. For $7 million each flight that would be $70 billion per year to operate at maximum capacity.

The US already spends $40 billion on spy satellites and military space program. Fully leveraging Spacex BFR fleet would mean the trivial deployment of Project Thor plus the ability to have a space corp of a hundred thousand or more people permanently station in various orbits, the moon, cislunar and other locations.

Kinetic orbital strike (rods from god) is the hypothetical act of attacking a planetary surface with an inert projectile, where the destructive force comes from the kinetic energy of the projectile impacting at very high velocities.

Project Thor is an idea for a weapons system that launches telephone pole-sized kinetic projectiles made from tungsten from Earth’s orbit to damage targets on the ground. Jerry Pournelle originated the concept while working in operations research at Boeing in the 1950s before becoming a science-fiction writer.

The system most often described is “an orbiting tungsten telephone pole with small fins and a computer in the back for guidance”. The system described in the 2003 United States Air Force report was that of 20-foot-long (6.1 m), 1-foot-diameter (0.30 m) tungsten rods, that are satellite controlled, and have global strike capability, with impact speeds of Mach 10.

The time between deorbit and impact would only be a few minutes, and depending on the orbits and positions in the orbits, the system would have a worldwide range. There would be no need to deploy missiles, aircraft or other vehicles. Although the SALT II (1979) prohibited the deployment of orbital weapons of mass destruction, it did not prohibit the deployment of conventional weapons. The system is not prohibited by either the Outer Space Treaty or the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

The idea is that the weapon would naturally contain a large kinetic energy, because it moves at orbital velocities, at least 8 kilometers per second. As the rod would approach Earth it would necessarily lose most of the velocity, but the remaining energy would cause considerable damage. Some systems are quoted as having the yield of a small tactical nuclear bomb. These designs are envisioned as a bunker buster. As the name suggests, the ‘bunker buster’ is powerful enough to destroy a nuclear bunker. With 6–8 satellites on a given orbit, a target could be hit within 12–15 minutes from any given time, less than half the time taken by an ICBM and without the launch warning. Such a system could also be equipped with sensors to detect incoming anti-ballistic missile-type threats and relatively light protective measures to use against them.

In the case of the system mentioned in the 2003 Air Force report above, a 6.1 m × 0.3 m tungsten cylinder impacting at Mach 10 has a kinetic energy equivalent to approximately 11.5 tons of TNT (or 7.2 tons of dynamite).

The US Space fleet could clean up the 500,000 pieces of space debris (20,000 pieces larger than a softball) and could hold the space debris in a space station warehouse. The junk would then also be able to formed into junk rods. A thousand smaller rods could be produced without having to fly specifically dedicated tungsten rods.

This would be a very credible anti-missile system and a deterrent to any trivial nuclear missile capability from Iran and North Korea.

It would also mean that Russia and China’s nuclear ICBMs would be less valuable militarily. Russia and China would have to depend upon nuclear armed submarines and submarine drones. Plus they would have to develop comparable reusable rocket capability.

Russia would still be able to use underwater nuclear weapons to create tsunami attacks. Also, near shore submarine launched attacks would be pretty quick and tough to defend even for Project Thor.

The only reasons not to upgrade to this kind of space capability are

1. Corruption where they choose to have a weaker capability so they can continue to pay Lockheed and established contractors
2. Utter incompetence and inability to break out of old thinking
3. Wanting to not go to the next levels and stick with existing “unsolvable problems”

21 thoughts on “Spacex BFR and developing the high ground is the geopolitical game changer”

  1. This is the one area Brian’s blog that I find disheartening. This ridiculous war-mongering. To continally celebrate and encourage the development of more dangerous and more capable weapons which are outrageously expensive and which can do nothing but impoverished and immiserate our country. Add to that the fact that economic strength is the basis of military strength, and that China is poised to become, on the basis of its human capital, four times as economically powerful as the United States. Next big future has itself published the fact that the science, technology, engineering, and Mathematics — STEM — students in China outnumber those in the US — I don’t remember the ratio… currently five to one and set to go to 12 to 1… or some such (track it down in the archives yourself). So while the United States is diminishing economically because if it’s ridiculous World Conquest military expenditures — a Fool’s errand — the Chinese, limiting their military expenses to defensive needs, and developing their social and economic capital, are moving to a position of world economic dominance.

    One final point, these Technologies are not Secret. The Chinese or Russians or whoever can develop these death machine, these wastes of human productivity, just as easily as Americans can.
    And they can do it cheaper. I don’t know where this conquer the world impulse comes from but it’s Psychopathic and it’s self-destructive. Our vast, complex, digital technology societies are fragile. The EMP Danger can turn a modern tech society off like a switch. One EMP device and the people in the cities, without electricity, water, heat, communications, or transportation, will be fighting each other for food and water the first week, and then eating each other until the population is down to where locally grown food can support the now-diminished urban population. And if you want to go full-on Dr. Strangelove, remember “if you merely wish to bury bombs, there is no limit to the size”. The teller-Ulam multistage thermonuclear design has no limit to the number of stages. The Soviets built and tested a multi-stage Tsar Bomba, small enough to be carried on an aircraft, with yield reduced to 50 from the 100 Megaton design so that the air crew that dropped the bomb could survive. Now the Russians, no longer commies, have a drone submarine nuclear weapon. This sort of weapon has no weight limitation, and therefore could have a dozen stages, with the yield in the thousands of gigatons. That’s gigatons with a G. Who’s going to keep track of this sort of monstrosity in the depths and vastness of the oceans?

    You need to stop talking about new ways to blow up the world in an effort to conquer it, and start talking about ways to get rid of this b******* impulse. We have enough productivity now to meet all human needs for everybody from now till the end of time. The ancient primate need to raid the other tribes mango and banana plantations and steal their females is out of date and needs to be discarded.

    • Yeah… This also sounds destabilizing, leading to use it or lose it.
      Why not spend a little money on education. I have just heard about the changes in the local school district, that amount to dumbing it down. Any society that does not consider children to be a primary industry, is doomed.
      I haven’t pursued this a great deal, but a lot of the nationalism that has led to wars has been about resources. Just as the economic markets in countries are becoming driven by consumption instead of scarcity, is that becoming true of the resources nations consume, especially energy? Does the reason and nature of nationalism change with the growth of renewable resources? You will still have ethnic and ideological things to argue about, but with the rise of the princes of today’s great fortunes, will conflict become more and more restricted to economics while economic conflict becomes less and less appealing due to it no longer being a zero sum game and more based on what technology you invest in – and is in danger of being destroyed in conflict. Markets and resource supplies can no longer be captured so easily when they are so based on technology. Peace could break out at any time as long as the culture itself does not contain war.

  2. “Yes, the enemy could shoot down a BFS – so the Marines won’t land on the battlefield.”

    They’d want a setup to use the BFR for HALO drops. Come to an approximate halt while still in the stratosphere, drop the troops, and then flit.

  3. “Military operations are planned in most cases years in advance.”

    You’re kidding, right? Certainly when China gets around to invading Taiwan it will have been planned years in advance. That’s not the general rule, though.

    • In general the military TRIES to have military operations planned years in advance. There are military planning groups, and their job is to plan this stuff. What do they do when there isn’t a war on? Well they sit around and plan out every possible scenario they can think of. Any likely possible military action has been worked out in detail, gamed, reworked, criticized, reworked and then every couple of years revisited to see what changes, updates and improvements they can make.

      This is exactly what they should be doing. Any military above the level of the Taliban is in gross dereliction of duty if they don’t have people doing exactly this.

      See for example.

      And once they have worked out all the likely scenarios, then they usually work on unlikely ones. Partly as practice, because working out the weird ones stretches the old thinking muscles.


      Though history indicates that there are a lot of times that the exact problem that occurs is not one that was anticipated, so a lot of last minute rewriting is needed. And famously the plans never survive contact with the enemy.

      This is all by-the-by. The real question is how much time the military has between when they decide to launch the military operation and when they can get troops on the ground. If the USA discovers that… errr… Monaco has gone nuclear and is about to launch missiles at the major cities of Europe, it doesn’t matter how many years in advance this was studied and wargamed out. Sure they pull out “Operation Casino” or whatever the Monaco plan is called and put it into operation. What matters in how many hours it takes from the decision to send in the Marines to when the boots hit the ground. And that’s where fast transport helps.

  4. Hell not even going that far just looking around today if you took the Falcon 9 reusable and mounted a conventional mirv stack you would get the Prompt Global Strike. Penetration ability would surpass any B21 projections and having a few on stand by would give you less than a hour order to strike. To be able to put 25tn or lets just say 10 1k or 20 2k class weapons on each launch a fleet of a 100 would be a devastating capability.

    The stealth bomber carries roughly the same weapon load, flight time plus refit has a equal or longer turn around, magnitudes more support craft targeting, fighters, EW, tankers, bases, etc… all while having much higher risk, odds of failure. Ohh did I mention you could conservatively buy 5 falcon 9s for each B21 expected at 500mil each, of which we were planning to buy 150.

    BFR will do all plus a multiple of more.

  5. The whole article does not make any sense
    ICMB, pardon me, ICBMs are already here
    They do not need to be reusable
    China and Russia have already many of them
    They do not need to develop a reusable ICBM
    The whole article does not make sense

  6. The BFR will enable powerful space laser satellites with large batteries and solar panels to create a truly effective anti ICBM defense net. And once ICBMs are made impotent then Project Thor will be the most effective global strike system.

  7. If we’re going to consider military applications, the US Marines are a customer that WOULD pay to get 500 people (i.e. marines) to anywhere in the world in half an hour. If the BFS saved enough energy to hop away to civilian base for re-fueling, they might not even have to throw away the BFS. Maybe the Marines would consider subsidizing civilian BFS bases.

    Yes, the enemy could shoot down a BFS – so the Marines won’t land on the battlefield. But getting them deployed within a few hundred miles (less for less sophisticated opponents) could be worth a lot.

    This might eliminate some of the need for big military bases all over the world – just arrange for secure landing sites in friendly nations. The savings on bases should easily pay for occasional emergency deployment launches.

    • What you say does not make sense
      Military operations are planned in most cases years in advance
      There is no need to deploy them in a few hours
      You can already deploy troops within 12-14 hours
      Being able to deploy them in 6 hours or so does not make
      any difference

  8. One lesson of the nuclear standoff in the Cold War is, always consider how the other guy is likely to respond to whatever you do. Let me expand upon what Copain said and posit that if we deploy such a system, other space powers (I’m thinking of Russia and China, but it could go further than that) could decide to deploy their own rod systems. At that point, we would have a situation where everybody’s capital, the Kremlin, the Forbidden City, and the White House are all capable of being destroyed with no more than a few minutes notice. That puts things on the kind of hair-trigger that I don’t think is in anyone’s interest.

    Furthermore, in the same fashion that the navy that arguably suffered most from the building of the Dreadnought was the Royal Navy because they had the most costly set of assets that were rendered obsolete, the United States already has the capability of delivering a conventional, precision guided, strike just about anywhere on the Earth, so how anxious should we be for others to acquire this capability for far less than we paid to acquire it ourselves? I’m not sure that this is a round of arms race we should be anxious to start. Of course, if someone else starts to develop similar systems, that’s different.

  9. where the destructive force comes from the kinetic energy of the projectile impacting at very high velocities.

    …which I pointed out earlier about the BFR being used as a kew. Yet numerous people kept ‘correcting’ me that only the energy in the BFR’s fuel could be realized on any impact coming down.

    Yet, the kinetically inert Rods From God up in orbit somehow can deliver more realized kinetic energy on the way down than a tungsten rod started out with. Amazing!

    • Yet numerous people kept ‘correcting’ me that only the energy in the BFR’s fuel could be realized on any impact coming down.
      Yet, the kinetically inert Rods From God up in orbit somehow can deliver more realized kinetic energy on the way down than a tungsten rod started out with. Amazing!

      The short hand, 5 second explanations that you were given were too condensed and dumbed down. I’ll expand it out for you.

      To get a mass into orbit takes a lot of energy. That energy comes from fuel. A lot of fuel. That’s why these launch rockets are 85-90% fuel on takeoff, because you have to burn all that fuel to get into orbit.

      Now that fuel isn’t turned directly into kinetic energy with 100% efficiency. And a lot of that kinetic energy is wasted pushing air out of the way and just holding the rocket up against gravity.

      But some fraction (and it isn’t too bad, I think Goaty showed it wasn’t much less than 50% in a good system) of the energy is converted into
      1. Potential energy, because the final payload is so many 100 km above the ground.
      2. Kinetic energy because it is moving at orbital velocity of a few thousand meters per second.

      When this orbiting thing, whether it be the BFR, a Chinese Tiangong, or a tungsten rod, decides to come down and hit something (let’s call it… Kim Jung Un) then the potential energy is converted to even more kinetic energy, but a lot of the energy is lost from air friction on the way down.

      Then it hits and converts all this kinetic energy to breaking molecular bonds in the impact area and heating up the resulting vapour and rubble.

      The point being that all this energy started in the fuel in the rocket on the launch pad. That’s the “fuel” that people mean when they say that you can’t have more energy than the fuel started with. Not the few tonnes of fuel that are in the final high speed object (if any), but the thousands of tonnes that were needed to launch this thing into orbit in the first place. That’s the only place that energy could have come from.

      Well, there is ONE other way. If you launch your kinetic energy weapons from somewhere not on Earth. Then you can use the fact that the moon or an asteroid already has a lot of kinetic and potential energy relative to Earth and so you don’t need to add any more than is necessary to hit the target.

      Finally, note that the AMAZING result we get is that a 8.3 tonne tungsten rod delivers as much energy as a 7.2 tonnes of dynamite moving at no speed. It isn’t really that impressive in energy terms. It might however be more focused in a penetrating motion, so you get more “bunker busting” than the same number of joules just exploding on the surface.

      • There is also the nontrivial problem of somehow steering the kinetic energy of the orbiting rod from mostly tangential to mostly radial inward…..or otherwise mostly offsetting the orbital velocity to allow the rod to actually fall.
        Remember this is something that must be done relatively quickly and preferably without easily noticed.
        Seems like the energy will likely be strongly correlated to an amount of fuel used to alter the trajectory from orbital to hemiballistic

    • @WarrenTheApe –> ” Yet, the kinetically inert Rods From God up in orbit somehow can deliver more realized kinetic energy on the way down than a tungsten rod started out with. Amazing! ”

      No one ever said that.

  10. It’s really best to avoid extending military competition to space – just remember how easy it would be for even 3rd world powers to detonate ASAT weapons in up Earth orbital space which would render it unusable to all. Then we’ll all be marooned here on Earth, thanks to our myopic petty squabbling. (Maybe that’s the real reason for Fermi’s Paradox)

  11. Charming. We are talking about launching hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo to space every year, and the first thought is what weapon we can launch that can be used and doesn’t violate any treaties.

    But it’s also unavoidable. So let’s talk about it:

    For me this rather looks like an extension of the existing “surgical strike” drones, which take explosive retribution to any (un)wanted target only by getting intel where they are at that moment.

    Of course, this in practice works only with asymmetric warfare scenarios. Any nuclear capable adversary won’t be amused by foreign drones killing national targets on their watch, and they’ll show it by escalating the proportional response.

    Same for these space rods. Even if ICBMs become less valuable and scary, subs and other nuclear nastiness ensure that anyone attempting to use these rods would also get a black eye from the results.

    After certain levels of destructive power, these war machines are mostly threatening and negotiation arguments, given we still share the same planet and we can really ruin it with them.

    Which interestingly, can no longer be the case, if the peaceful and business-like uses of this next generation rockets really pan out and we become multi-planetary.

    But given the frailty of space infrastructure and its dependence on Earth probably for a long while, I doubt space settlers will be getting any warmongering ideas soon.

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