Lessons from the ORS Endeavor


Nearly 10 years ago the concept of Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) emerged out of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Force Transformation. As early staff advocates within Congress, believing it important to the future of national security space, my former colleagues and I advised the 2005 Congress to provide $25 million as seed money to incubate technologies for the concept. In the 2007 Authorization Act we continued by advising a mandate in law to create an ORS Office. As fate would have it, several of us moved to the Pentagon during the implementation and execution phases of the organization.

Unfortunately, the recent proposal to cut the ORS budget and move it to the Air Force marks a low point in the progress of national security space. As reflected in President Barack Obama’s budget, it remains a question whether members of Congress will accept this proposal — initial indications suggest they will force the Air Force to keep ORS alive for at least one more year. In any case, it represents a victory for the components of the national security space community that long fought the ORS concept, the creation of competing models to the status quo, and a recognition of highly dynamic times and operational environments.

ORS has had a significant impact on today’s space policy and system development. Its history should shape the way we pursue future national security space activities.

The creation of the organization was based on the desire to introduce innovation to the space community. Three books in particular, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” “Innovation: The Missing Dimension” and “How Breakthroughs Happen,” stimulated the concept of the new organization that was intended to reshape the way national security space supported the warfighter.

At the time, the national security space community, the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) had several programs that excessively overran their cost and schedule baselines. This made expensive programs more expensive and delayed deployment of critical capabilities. It was suggested that space acquisition was broken.

To be commended, the systems produced by the Air Force and the NRO are technical wonders, perform on-orbit beyond all expectations, and seem to have reached a level of budget and schedule stability. But we still build extremely expensive systems and produce them on timelines that allow multiple generations of new technology to be created and become obsolete before we launch a single satellite. Our government practices are laughable to the non-defense industry — even to the commercial space industry. Likewise, our adversaries and allies have learned from our practices that make space unaffordable and inhibit progress, adopting their own ORS-like approach.

As a result, the need for a national security space organization like ORS has not gone away; a separate organization with a similar mindset regarding the development and deployment of national security space systems is necessary. As we move forward, we should remember:

  • Because innovation threatens the existence of established methods and systems, new groundbreaking concepts and solutions must come from organizations outside of the mainstream. Users cannot reliably depend on current mainstream organizations to develop the innovations of the future. Bureaucracies by design create stability and iterative improvement. Innovative and disruptive change is particularly difficult in national security space. With an environment that requires multiple years and many stakeholders for the advocacy necessary to start a program followed by nearly a decade to produce a system, one can understand that when an innovative idea enters the arena, it is quickly killed. As a result, the creation and selection of new concepts in today’s national security space organizations frequently follow the same attribute: large monolithic systems with a centralized architecture.

National security space needs a separate and classified space where innovations can be generated, seeded, protected and matured. The opportunities coming from this organization should change the status quo, while transforming and becoming the foundation for the future NRO and Air Force organizations. Additionally, the highest chances for success require separate funding and authority structures from that of the mainstream. The ORS legislation did not go far enough in these respects; future efforts must.

  • A “market” of underprivileged, emerging users and untapped needs exists for the national security space community. Our space architectures have been built to “one size fits all,” treating all users in all geographic areas alike. It has been the Model-T approach to space users — you can have any color you want, as long as it is black. The reality is that terrain, culture, geopolitical dynamics and national priority all shape the needs, resources and abilities of space system users. Monolithic systems cannot satisfy the multitude of future space system users. Future architectures can be more responsive and resilient by disaggregating missions and distributing architectures optimized to meet the needs of these emerging users while still satisfying the traditional ones.
  • The established requirements process is too structured and analytically constrained to understand the ambiguity associated with emerging and unanticipated uses of space systems. Interpretation of user needs must be allowed and the solution space must be flexible and iterative in application. Experimentation with current systems and new concepts will produce the flexible and evolving space solutions necessary to keep U.S. forces on the cutting edge of capability. The acquisition system must learn to accept that requirements documents do not and cannot be expected to be the definitive statement of all space users’ requirements. Throughout the rest of the acquisition enterprise and in other domains, organizations exist, like the Rapid Capabilities Office or Big Safari, without the constraint of formal requirements. The space acquisition system too needs an organization where experimentation and interpretation of future needs are allowed and encouraged. Investment by this organization should include but not be limited to ideas that get little focus elsewhere, such as small sats, microsats, cubesats, hosted payloads, space formation flying, networked operations and Earth-to-space sensor integration.
  • The space community must focus on the real users of space systems and their needs. The real users are not the operators or staff in Colorado or Washington who believe they “fly” national security space systems. The real users are the soldiers, sailors and airmen deployed in harm’s way. Successful innovation from the NRO, for example, has come from the operational, user-focused organization using deployed personnel and a network of permanently assigned field liaisons. These people live with the real end users. They not only understand but often share their needs in the field. The Air Force, and any future organization, should adopt such a model with the joint fighting force.
  • The user must be involved but cannot dominate the analytical approach of system development or interpretation for future uses. Urgent needs from the Combatant Commands ironically contributed to the potential demise of ORS. The priority of these formal urgent needs, constrained by limited financial resources, forced ORS to focus on short-term, stopgap solutions rather than the long-term and disruptive solutions that the national security space community needs. Domination by the user of the requirements definition and analytical approach will limit the solution space while driving short-term focus at the expense of understanding future needs. In the future a better balance must be achieved.

The operational environment and technological landscape will continually change at faster speeds. In stark contrast, our national security space efforts have not kept pace and the community shows no remarkable momentum toward addressing or anticipating the changes we could face in the future. The ORS Office provided a first attempt from which the community learned a great deal. The next steps must now be taken. As we move forward, we must realize these lessons — those listed here and many others — continue to implement them, and transform our national security space organizations for success in the future.


Josh Hartman is chief executive of the Horizon Strategies Group.