House authorizers have done the right thing in recommending that $23 million be added to the U.S. Air Force’s 2010 budget request for the U.S. Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office. The additional funding is needed to keep the office’s first operational satellite, ORS Sat-1, on track for a late 2010 launch.

This was the assessment not only of the ORS Office – which warned about the shortfall in May – but of the Air Force itself. In a May 18 letter to Congress, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said an additional $103.4 million above the service’s $112 million request for the ORS Office next year is needed to keep ORS Sat-1 on track and to begin work on a follow-on satellite.

That ORS Sat-1 and the follow-on satellite ended up on the Air Force’s dreaded list of unfunded priorities – an oxymoron if there ever was one – is troubling on a couple of levels. In the first place, the ORS Office contracted for ORS Sat-1, which features a U-2 spy plane camera modified to operate in space, in response to what Pentagon officials described as an urgent military need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data. With U.S. troops on the ground and under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan, the requirement is perfectly credible, especially given that senior U.S. military officials have often complained loudly about the difficulty of obtaining tactical overhead reconnaissance data on a timely basis. It is also no secret that the U.S. strategic community is facing a potential near-term shortfall in collection capability due to the failure of the National Reconnaissance Office’s Future Imagery Architecture program, the optical portion of which was canceled more than three and a half years ago. In the meantime, the list of sites around the world worthy of close surveillance by
intelligence assets – Iranian nuclear and missile facilities come to mind – isn’t getting any shorter.

More broadly speaking, the Air Force, in shortchanging the ORS Office, is sending a message that the ORS concept – the ability to field space assets quickly in response to emerging needs – is little more than a passing Pentagon fancy and that contractors should focus their attention and resources elsewhere. This is the wrong message: given the problems inherent in large, multifunction platforms, plus the dearth of big-ticket spacecraft procurements on the horizon, smaller and cheaper satellites should be considered for an expanded operational role in support of the military.

It’s probably fair to assume that the Air Force submitted its budget request with some expectation that lawmakers would push for additional funding for the ORS Office; this is part of the budgetary gamesmanship that goes on every year between the Pentagon and Congress. But it says something that the Air Force would choose this tack with the ORS Office budget, which accounts for such a small fraction of the service’s $41 billion request for procurement and research and development activities in 2010.

The Senate Armed Services Committee should follow the House’s lead and add funds to the Air Force’s ORS Office budget request, at least enough to keep ORS Sat-1 on schedule. So too, should the House and Senate appropriations committees. If lawmakers can carve out even more funding to get started on the follow-on satellite, be it a carbon copy of ORS Sat-1 or some other capability such as a radar satellite – something numerous Pentagon officials have said the military could use – so much the better.