WASHINGTON — Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) in his version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 directs the Defense Department to submit a plan for how it will use commercial launch vehicles for so-called tactically responsive missions.

Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, included the language in the chairman’s mark of the NDAA that the committee will take up Sept. 1. 

Tactically responsive space launch means increasing the speed of launch operations so satellites that can be deployed on short notice in emergencies or during conflicts. The concept is aimed at taking advantage of the growing cadre of small launch providers, many of which are funded by venture capital. 

Last year’s NDAA included similar language directing DoD to set up a responsive launch program and estimate funding needed for the program over five years. The 2022 chairman’s mark suggests that the committee is dissatisfied that DoD did not comply with last year’s congressional direction and did not seek any funding for tactically responsive launch in its 2022 budget.

The chairman’s mark “continues to highlight the need for tactically responsive space launch and requires the secretary of defense to provide a plan, including funding, on how this program will be executed in future years defense programs,” the HASC said in a summary of the bill.

This program is of keen interest to commercial providers of small satellite launch services. The U.S. Space Force has a small launch program but only a handful of contracts have been awarded in the last few years, most funded by congressional add-ons. 

The Space Force recently launched the Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) mission on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket. The payload was a space surveillance demonstration satellite sent to low Earth orbit. According to the Space Force, a mission that normally would have required two to five years, took 11 months.

Last year’s NDAA asked DoD to “accelerate the development of responsive launch concepts of operations; tactics; training; and procedures.”

The 2022 NDAA would revise the language in the 2021 bill “to require the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, to support the tactically responsive launch program.”

Smith’s mark wants the plan to address the following: 

  • The ability to rapidly place on-orbit systems to respond to urgent needs of the commanders of the combatant commands or to reconstitute space assets and capabilities to support national security priorities.
  • The entire launch process, including launch services, satellite bus and payload availability, and operations and sustainment on-orbit.

According to an industry source, the 2022 language is effectively a “foot-stomp from HASC to emphasize their support for the program, particularly because the 2021 language was not complied with and there was no funding in the FY22 budget for tactically responsive launch.”

The new language elevates the directive to the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence. Last year’s bill was directed at the Air Force. 

Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the launch enterprise at the Space Systems Command, told SpaceNews that the Space Force will buy tactically responsive launch missions through the Orbital Services Program (OSP)-4.

OSP-4 is an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract for rapid acquisition of launch services. Vendors compete for individual orders, and have to be able to launch payloads larger than 400 pounds to any orbit within 12 to 24 months from contract award.  

Bongiovi said the TacRL-2 mission served as a demonstration of how tactically responsive launch could be executed in the future. The next step is to “figure out how responsive launch fits into the Space Force warfighting plans,” he said. “We have launches budgeted right now [for OSP-4] I think every other year.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...