Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) has become one of the hottest terms in military space in recent years, but even its advocates have difficulty agreeing on what that term means.

Despite the considerable interest in ORS within the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill, the effort could have difficulty gaining permanent traction without a common definition, according to a Pentagon official and a congressional source.

While some ORS advocates want a broad definition for the term, others think the effort has the best chance of prolonged and stable funding by keeping the program’s focus as narrow as possible.

Brian Green, deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces policy, said in an April 25 speech at the 4th Responsive Space Conference in Los Angeles that the lack of a common definition for ORS has contributed to the difficulty of coordinating the various efforts within the Defense Department that could play a role in providing responsive space capabilities to U.S. forces.

Green’s prepared text was released along with other presentations from the conference on a CD-ROM distributed after the event by its organizers.

ORS has alternatively been defined as a way to augment existing space capabilities, a way to save money, and a way to change the way that the Pentagon acquires satellites, Green said.

“The definition of ORS cannot be all over the map, and it cannot be everything to everyone,” said Green, who noted that his office has developed its own definition for the term. “Simply stated, we have been looking at ORS as ‘assured space power that is focused at the operational level of war.’”

Covered under this definition is the ability to launch payloads when needed to provide surge capacity, quickly reconstitute a damaged or crippled capability or generate new capabilities. In each case those payloads or capabilities would be activated quickly. This ORS definition also applies to the need to develop the ground infrastructure and tactics, techniques and procedures to use the satellites developed for ORS, Green said.

A congressional aide indicated hope that the definition used by Green’s office could be altered slightly to change the word “war” to a broader term that would reflect theater-level operations. This would help ensure that responsive space capabilities are applied not only in battle, but in contingencies like disaster responses, while maintaining the distinction that they are primarily for users who today traditionally do not have direct access to satellite capabilities that are more frequently in the hands of strategic-level decision makers, the aide said.

Since the Persian Gulf War, U.S. military officials have expressed their desire to be able to have space systems that will be under the control of commanders in the field.

In order to meet the task of launching quickly and frequently, most definitions of ORS include the use of new small satellites and small rockets. Even that area lacks some consensus, at least on Capitol Hill, where the House and Senate included language about establishing a new ORS program office in their versions of the 2007 Defense Authorization Act, which were passed on May 11 and June 22, respectively.

The House bill defines satellites for ORS as those weighing no more than 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms) that can be developed and acquired within 18 months and launched quickly and inexpensively. The Senate definition covers satellites that would cost no more than $40 million that could be launched for no more than $20 million.

The weight parameter for ORS outlined by the House could result in satellites that are far too large to build quickly and launch aboard any of the small rockets currently in development, the congressional aide said. The high cost of building and launching those satellites would make it difficult to afford them in the quantities necessary to quickly respond to urgent needs, the aide said.

Richard Dalbello, vice president for government affairs at Intelsat General Corp., said the Pentagon would be wise to include commercial satellite communications services in its definition of ORS.

Communications is a much more difficult capability to deploy than imagery gathering when talking about small, inexpensive satellites, Dalbello said in a June interview. While small imagers can take useful pictures from low Earth orbit, a small communications spacecraft would not likely be in position long enough to maintain useful coverage for its users, Dalbello said.

The military could rely on commercial services in a variety of ways that can fit under the ORS concept to enable more responsive capabilities for U.S. troops, Dalbello said. The military could lease dedicated transponders aboard commercial satellites similar to the way that it prepositions equipment around the work to enable a faster response time to various contingencies, he said.

The Pentagon could lease a satellite transponder that primarily beams information like training videos around the world to military bases, but in an emergency could switch to critical communications traffic, Dalbello said. Long-term arrangements like this could save the military from paying high prices on the spot market and prevent it from having to compete for bandwidth with other customers like television networks during a crisis, he said.

The Pentagon also could develop advance plans under ORS for how it would reroute communications traffic through commercial services if a commercial satellite had problems caused by natural interference like space weather or an enemy attack, Dalbello said. With a variety of commercial communications satellites overlapping their coverage around the world, the Pentagon should plan in advance as to how it would switch to another satellite to ensure that it can quickly respond to users’ needs, he said.

Comments: jsinger@space.com