U.S. Air Force Requests Money for Office, but Not Much

The U.S. Defense Department’s space-related budget blueprint for 2016 contained at least one pleasant surprise in the form of a funding request, albeit a small one, for the Air Force-led Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office.

In its three previous requests, the Air Force proposed shuttering the office, which was stood up to demonstrate new methods and technologies for developing and deploying space capabilities quickly. The Air Force had argued that ORS could live on in the service’s primary space acquisition shop, the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which typically procures large, expensive satellite systems using a strict and often cumbersome set of rules.

Each time, however, Congress blocked the move, either in recognition that ORS would die a quick death at SMC or because it simply wanted to keep the office and the associated work at Kirtland Air Force in New Mexico. Lawmakers provided $10 million for the office in 2014 and $20 million in 2015.

It now appears that the Air Force has conceded the point — the service is seeking just under $6.5 million for the ORS Office for next year.

In a separate but related move, the Air Force has asked for a $7 million increase, to $28.2 million, next year for another activity once targeted for cancellation: the Space Test Program, which finds rides to orbit for promising experiments and technologies. This too, is a promising development.

Unfortunately, however, the funding sought for the ORS Office won’t go very far, even granting the organization’s wide latitude to do things differently. A quick look at the office’s near-term priorities as spelled out in the budget documents — they include work on experimental satellites for radar Earth observation and space surveillance — suggests a mismatch between program and budget.

What’s more, the Air Force says it is considering giving the office the lead in developing operational satellites for weather monitoring and space surveillance and will make a decision on that idea sometime this year. That’s encouraging — if adopted, it would signal a real commitment to the “O” in ORS — but the Air Force does not identify any funding for the office in its budget projections for 2017-2020.

One might assume that the budgets for the two programs in question — the Air Force is requesting $76 million next year for the Weather Satellite Follow-on, for example — would transfer along with them to the ORS Office. But setting aside the fact that the Air Force budget documents did not include out-year projections for the weather satellite, the ORS Office presumably would still retain its other, more experimental activities.

It could be that the Air Force is engaging in a little budgetary gamesmanship, aiming low under the assumption that Congress will provide a boost in its defense spending bill. The lack of out-year projections for the office, meanwhile, might simply reflect uncertainty over its expanded responsibilities.

Regardless, though, it’s fair to question whether the Air Force is as fully committed to ORS as advocates would like. As they delve into the 2016 request, ORS proponents in Congress should demand the specifics of the Air Force plan for the office and assess how that information squares with the numbers in the request.