Op-ed | ORS: A Program Worth Fighting For

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U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.


The U.S. Air Force’s fiscal year 2016 budget request marked an important shift for a small but critical element of our national security: Operationally Responsive Space (ORS). For three consecutive years, the Pentagon attempted to terminate the ORS program, which seeks to design, build and launch satellites, faster and at less cost. Along with my colleagues, I fought to preserve our nation’s responsive space capabilities by restoring the program’s budget. This year I’m pleased to see a budget request that no longer lists a zero next to ORS.

Our nation faces a $16 trillion debt, and it only makes sense to evaluate and recommend changes or even terminate programs if they are not strategic or fiscally sound. ORS, however, is a program that makes perfect sense from both the monetary and military perspective.

Congress established the ORS program to provide responsiveness and help tackle the exorbitant costs of designing, building and launching typical satellites, and the sometimes decade-long development cycle to put a satellite into orbit. The ORS program at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, was tasked with responding to urgent needs of combatant commanders such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance by rapidly developing space capabilities — and to do so at lower costs. Combatant commanders do not have time to wait years for these capabilities, and taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay billions of dollars for them when there is an alternative.

The concept is simple: Design, build and launch satellites, faster and at lower costs.

With its unique acquisition authorities, ORS has already demonstrated it is capable of accomplishing these objectives.

Following a rapid 30-month development process, the ORS Office and contractors designed, built and launched ORS-1 on June 29, 2011, from Wallops Island, Virginia. This satellite remains operational to this day and Central Command has been extremely impressed with the imagery it has received from ORS-1. Retired Gen. William Shelton, former commander of Air Force Space Command, even described the program as providing “a warfighting advantage, no question.”

ORS-3 launch
The Nov. 19, 2013 launch of ORS-3 on a Minotaur rocket sent 29 satellites into orbit. Credit: NASA

On Nov. 19, 2013, the ORS Office and contractors successfully launched a record-setting 29 satellites into orbit aboard ORS-3. And this year, the ORS Office plans to launch ORS-4 using a low-cost launch system developed by Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. I am proud that the rail launcher that will be used for ORS-4 was made in Albuquerque by Western Fabrication and the National Technical Systems facility team. Through ORS-4, the office hopes to provide a low-cost launch option for small satellites, including cubesats, which have become increasingly popular with universities and government agencies.

On March 18, 2015, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James described the increasingly “congested, contested and competitive” environment of space.

I could not agree more. There are more than 60 nations operating satellites worldwide, and China is actively demonstrating anti-satellite technologies that could disable or disrupt U.S. satellite operations. According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2014 Report to Congress, “China in 2014 continued to pursue a broad counter-space program to challenge U.S. information superiority in a conflict and disrupt or destroy U.S. satellites if necessary. … China likely will be able to hold at risk U.S. national security satellites in every orbital regime in the next five to ten years.”

Our military has become increasingly dependent on satellites for daily operations. Global communications, navigation and guided munitions all rely on satellites that provide game-changing advantages on the battlefield. In nearly every national space policy and guidance document, resiliency and responsiveness are key components of our strategy, and concepts such as low-cost launch, disaggregation and common bus structures are all embraced by the Department of Defense.

I applaud Secretary James; Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command; and former Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning (now chief of staff of the Department of Defense) for their leadership on resurrecting the ORS vision. In addition to responding to urgent needs, ORS is now considered a perfect fit for developing rapid prototypes for larger constellations to meet pressing needs such as space-based space surveillance and weather monitoring.

The vision of ORS to design, build and launch satellites faster and at a lower cost is both strategically and fiscally responsible. We must cut federal spending, but spending cuts should not come at the expense of proven technologies that are delivering results and lowering costs.

I look forward to continuing my support for this important program in the U.S. Senate.