If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then in Washington a good buzzword must be worth at least that many PowerPoint charts. That certainly seems to be the case with Operationally Responsive Space (ORS). Although penciled -in for a modest $35 million in 2007 (out of an Air Force space budget request of nearly $10 billion), this program is commanding a significant amount of official attention these days.
Like all good buzzwords, ORS encourages a certain definitional entrepreneurship among its devotees. A quick visit to the Internet reveals that ORS is, alternately, “a new business model,” a low-cost launch vehicle, a program to develop blimps and “near space” platforms, a small satellite program, a global strike weapon and (my personal favorite) part of an “unblinking eye offering persistent surveillance over the battle-space.”
Although the exact definition of ORS may remain in transition, its origins and intents are relatively straightforward. ORS recognizes that space systems and technologies are essential to the U.S. warfighter and primarily are responsible for conferring the “information dominance” on which the U.S. and allied troops currently rely.
Today, space power is dependent on large and expensive satellites which, for the most part, cannot be reconstituted quickly if compromised. Those within the Department of Defense and Congress whose job it is to worry that ” bad things that can happen probably will ” have begun to express concern. Adding fuel to the ORS fire is congressional irritation over perceived underperformance of nearly all major military space development programs. Although there is reasonable consensus on the desirability of promised future space technologies, there is a general skepticism whether the current acquisition system can deliver on those promises. As a result, there have been increasingly strident calls for more flexible and responsive space strategies.
The commercial satellite services industry has been, for the most part, a spectator in the early stages of the ORS debate. Given the program’s focus on small satellite and launch vehicle development, little consideration has been given to how the roughly 240 large commercial communications satellites currently in orbit can contribute to ORS requirements. But now that the ORS debate seems to be moving into the mainstream, it is time to think beyond hardware development and to refocus on meeting core communications objectives. In other words, it is time to put the “operational” into Operationally Responsive Space.
The ability to put hardware into space is meaningful only if that hardware meets the user community’s needs. Today, DoD is challenging the satellite services industry to provide ever greater bandwidth to a widening variety of platforms in both fixed and mobile environments. Spectrum-hungry applications such as unmanned aerial vehicles are proliferating. To be effective, space systems must be supported by appropriately trained personnel, ground terminals and equipment and a robust logistics system. The current debate on ORS, while focused on near-term technical milestones, may underestimate the complexity of integrating relatively “thin” rapid response capabilities into complex communications networks. Text-message capability on a mobile phone is good, but it is no substitute for a computer with a broadband connection.
DoD can enhance its space operations posture and accelerate its long-term transformational communication objectives by making a few important changes in its relationship with the commercial satellite industry. It has been widely reported that more than 80 percent of DoD communications use commercial satellites, yet the Pentagon still procures satellite capacity one year at a time. By keeping the industry at arm’s length, it cuts itself off from the resources and dynamism of the private sector. (Note, for example, the ease with which the satellite radio operators modified their systems to provide new emergency services only days after Hurricane Katrina.) Part of the goal of ORS is to release the creativity of satellite developers by freeing them from the strictures of the normal acquisition processes.
Similarly, to derive new operationally responsive approaches to satellite communications, procurement officials must be prepared to rethink old models and to take prudent risk. For example, DoD would do well to consider:
– Developing a “Network Approach” to satellite utilization — There has been much discussion recently about the vulnerability of commercial satellites. This reflects a narrow procurement approach that views every lease as an isolated link connecting A to B through transponder C.
However, each commercial satellite serves multiple regions — every potential hot spot on Earth can be served by dozens of commercial satellites. Recent and planned industry consolidation means that certain global operators can provide enhanced connectivity and increased redundancy to mitigate the effects of satellite anomalies, whether accidental or intentional. This commercial trend also has produced a satellite industry that is better able to provide bandwidth portability and interference resolution through path diversity.
Beyond these advantages, a creative procurement strategy might look to empower virtual integrators with deep knowledge of DoD enterprise requirements and the ability to work across diverse commercial fleets, and highly flexible (and cost-effective) ground systems, to provide service and resolve problems. Yet, surprisingly, there has been no significant effort to take advantage of the flexibility that does, or easily could, exist.
–Pre-positioning capacity around the globe — It is DoD’s practice to pre-position strategic materials around the globe in anticipation of a future need to ensure that future operations can proceed without unnecessary logistical delay. DoD needs to rethink its satellite-procurement practice in light of this simple fact.
With a modest budget, DoD could put in place a limited number of strategic long-term purchases that likely would significantly save the government cost and ensure satellite capacity when needed. These purchases would reflect current DoD strategic plans and could be pre-positioned over critical geographic theatres.
With a minimal amount of planning, this pre-positioned capacity could include steerable spot beams (perhaps with switchable connectivity) to confer additional flexibility. With additional resources and planning, future generations of satellites could contain advanced beam-shaping technologies that would allow the satellites to adapt to shifting theatre connectivity requirements.
–Flying government payloads on commercial satellites — As a result of industry growth , there are approximately 70 large communications satellites scheduled for launch in the next five years. Since a central tenant to ORS is the desire to proliferate the opportunities to go to space with new technology and hardware while training a new generation of engineers — this great number of commercial flights must be regarded as a remarkable opportunity.
This is in no sense a novel idea. In the early 1970 s, Comsat was considering launching the Marisat satellites to provide L- band communications to ships at sea. The U.S. Navy, which at the time was working on its own UHF Fleet Satellite Communications System program, jump-started the programming by flying a UHF payload on the Marisat satellites. The resulting relationship helped the Navy define its own program and created a partnership that lasted more than 20 years. In addition, this decision assisted in the launch of Marisat and, by extension, Inmarsat — a result that continues to pay significant dividends to the U.S. military. As the Air Force moves toward the implementation of the Transformational Communications Architecture, it should seek similar opportunities.
–Buying commercially operated dedicated satellites — Commercial satellite operators also could play a direct role in government satellite operations. Given their long experience in operating diverse fleets, this could offer a cost-effective approach for expanding government capabilities. Commercial operators could build satellites to operate in the commercial or government frequency bands. The satellites could be fixed or highly maneuverable. They could be launched into standard or exotic orbits, as required.
An example of such an arrangement is the recent U.K. award to Paradigm Secure Communications to operate Skynet 4 and 5. In addition to operating the satellites, Paradigm also is responsible for network management, end-to-end satellite communications solutions including maritime and transportable terminals, and advanced technical solutions. Whether such an approach is relevant to the U.S. experience is unclear, but it should be watched closely.
ORS provides the space industry with an opportunity. Not because it may develop a small, inexpensive launch vehicle or satellites, but because it provides us all with an opportunity to rethink our approach to meeting our complex and expanding future needs. ORS should not be about settling for less capability, but about getting more capability for less.
Richard DalBello is vice president of Intelsat General Corp.