The U.S. Air Force’s most senior space official believes the service should play a lead role in the development of new small satellites intended to be launched on short notice and directly controlled by commanders on the battlefield. However, this does not mean that other services and military labs should be excluded from developing and acquiring satellites under the operationally responsive space (ORS) effort, says Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command.

In an Aug.

14 interview Chilton said he raised the concept in early August during a meeting with other senior ORS stakeholders in the military and got a positive reception to his ideas.

“Someone has to propose a set of standards on how you’re going to launch these things, how they’re going to interface with the bus, and be operated on orbit, so they can have some kind of common framework,” Chilton said. “Otherwise, we will not be responsive. Every satellite, every system will be a new approach to solving the problem. So some set of standards has to be set. I think the Air Force is uniquely positioned because we do all of those things.”

Chilton acknowledged that satellite development expertise is not exclusive to the Air Force, and noted that the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, for example, plays a significant role in the development of experimental satellites intended to demonstrate the utility of the ORS concept.

The Naval Research Laboratory built TacSat-1, which the military

initially had planned to launch

in January 2004. However, the Pentagon canceled plans to do so earlier this month. Repeated delays associated with Tacsat-1’s planned launch vehicle – the Falcon 1 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif. – resulted in the second TacSat launching first, and accomplishing the objectives envisioned for TacSat-1, according to service officials.

Having the Air Force play a leadership role in this area can complement the work of the ORS program office, which was established at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico in May, Chilton said. Chilton noted that the ORS office has a small staff, and said that it could draw on the expertise of Air Force Space Command.

Without leveraging the staff at Space Command, the military

likely would need a large organization with a staff entirely dedicated to the ORS mission, similar to the role played by the Missile Defense Agency in missile defense, Chilton said.

The Air Force has been acquiring, launching

and operating satellites that play an important role in military operations for decades. That experience makes the Air Force the logical choice for moving the ORS concept from demonstration work into the operational realm, Chilton said.

“Today, all I see us doing is building experimental satellites,” Chilton said. “There’s no plan for how to sustain them [and] to train operators to operate those satellites. I see no plan in place today that would actually field something that could deliver a capability when you need it.”

Under his concept, Space Command would serve as the lead integrator for coordination on ORS since it is where the service turns to for space expertise, Chilton said.

Chilton, who has been nominated to serve as commander of U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom), said that he is eager to move out with the acquisition of operational satellites based on the ORS model, but does not favor doing so until the military develops a clearer picture of what it needs from the satellites.

“And that’s something we can work on very rapidly, working with the [combatant commanders], and with Stratcom,” Chilton said.

The Defense Department needs to examine its current plan, determine where its dependencies are and then decide what capabilities it would most hate to lose.

“Is that something you can either easily defend or do you need to have an augmentation or replenishment capability?” Chilton said. Other areas that need to be examined include possible capability gaps in the current space architectures that could be filled on a rapid basis by small satellites, he said.

At least one of Chilton’s counterparts in the other military services said he does not object to the idea of the Air Force taking the lead on fielding ORS satellites – with a caveat.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell, commander of Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said in an Aug. 16 interview that it is clear the ORS program office, with a limited staff of 20 to 25 people, would need to turn to another organization for expertise on the ORS mission. However, Campbell said he would like to see representatives from the Army and other services embedded in Air Force offices dealing with ORS to help ensure a joint flavor.

One Pentagon source said the ORS program office should play the lead role with the mission until there are indications that it cannot handle the workload. The source noted that ORS advocates struggled to include $87 million in the Air Force’s 2008 budget request – far less than the roughly $9 billion requested by the Missile Defense Agency – and said that current level of funding for the effort is an indication that a relatively small program office can handle the lead role, rather than a larger organization.

While Air Force Space Command is an important stakeholder in the ORS mission, its expertise in developing, acquiring and operating satellites has been focused in a strategic fashion, and part of the goal with ORS is to adopt new processes to better support tactical users, the source said.

“Air Force systems and processes don’t provide the attributes that we want ORS to have,” the source said. “If we accept the Air Force processes, it would defeat the purpose.”