Lawmakers seek another big increase for DoD ‘responsive launch’

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A bipartisan group of House members is proposing to increase funding for tactically responsive launch to $150 million in 2023

WASHINGTON — Congress added $50 million to the Pentagon’s 2022 budget for responsive launch – or services from commercial small satellite launchers that can fly payloads on short notice. Lawmakers are now proposing to increase that funding to $150 million in the 2023 budget.

A bipartisan group of 25 House lawmakers in a letter last month asked the leaders of the defense appropriations subcommittee to consider tripling the funding for “tactically responsive launch” in the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2023 budget. 

“As vividly demonstrated by Russia’s 2021 destructive anti-satellite test, threats to our critical national security space assets continue to increase, both from adversary on-orbit and terrestrial counter-space capabilities and from space debris,” said the letter signed by Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) and Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), and co-signed by 23 other members.

The United States is “not currently positioned with an operational capability to rapidly replace assets in orbit that are degraded, disabled, or destroyed or to rapidly launch satellites for urgent new missions,” the letter said. “As an element of the United States’ move toward a more resilient space architecture, it is critical that its space assets can be launched, reconstituted, and augmented on tactical timelines in support of the warfighter and others responsible for our nation’s security.”

Horsford and Waltz wrote a similar letter in January asking appropriators to add $50 million for tactically responsive launch. That letter was co-signed by 10 lawmakers, so the coalition has grown in the months since.  

The lawmakers suggest that the $150 million should be spent on several efforts: Continue to fly Tactically Responsive Launch (TacRL) missions managed by the Space Systems Command, demonstrate rapid space reconstitution and satellite augmentation, accelerate development of processes needed to implement tactically responsive space and launch operations, and establish specialized units. 

The latest letter points out that the head of U.S. Space Command, Gen. James Dickinson, said having a responsive launch capability would likely deter enemies from attempting to destroy U.S. satellites, as they could be rapidly replaced. 

If Congress adds funding for tactically responsive launch in 2023, it would mark the third year in a row that the program gets funded by congressional add-ons as the Pentagon has not requested money for this program.  Small satellite launch companies like Virgin Orbit have actively lobbied for funding for responsive launch, which would go to small launch services providers that don’t require conventional launch facilities. Virgin Orbit air-launches rockets from a modified Boeing 747- 400 carrier aircraft. 

The Space Force funds small satellite launches via the Rocket Systems Launch Program, and created the Orbital Services Program (OSP)-4 contracting vehicle. Vendors pre-selected for OSP-4 can compete for task orders to launch payloads greater than 400 pounds to any orbit within 12-24 months from contract award.  

The Space Force’s Space Systems Command on May 12 announced it plans to award a contract in August for the Tactically Responsive Space (TacRS-3) mission. OSP-4 vendors are eligible to compete for the task order.