E arly in his administration, President George W. Bush called for a transformation of the nation’s military capabilities to meet the non traditional threats the nation faces in the 21st century. Space assets are an important and growing element of that transformation and U.S. government officials have attempted to align national security space policies with the changing threat environment. One important element of that realignment should be a commitment to the development and deployment of Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) capabilities, the ability to put critical space assets in the hands of commanders in the field quickly and efficiently.

Around the clock intelligence gathering on a global scale has become a major national security goal. The development and timely acquisition of space systems beneficial to the changing needs of the warfighter is a key element in realizing this goal.

Members of the 120-Day Study, a collaborative effort between the Air Force and NASA in 2001 to assess available technologies for advancements in space launch vehicle development, characterized the emerging international security environment early in the new century: “…the international security environment may be more fluid than during much of the 20th century. The superpower standoff that dominated the Cold War is over … and transnational, non governmental organizations and terrorist networks have had a disproportionate impact on state-to-state relations … the challenges the Nation faces do not loom in the distant future, but are here now. They involve protecting our critical bases of operation — including the most critical base of operation, the U.S. homeland –and projecting and sustaining U.S. forces in distant anti-access environments.”

As early as 1988, there was recognition of the critical nature of space assets. The Commission on the Integrated Long-Term Strategy reported that “…To defend its interests properly in the Third World, the United States will have to take low intensity conflict much more seriously … Here again our technology can help us. Low-cost satellites in space can in some measure replace the communication and intelligence-gathering functions of overseas bases.”

Crucial issues still to be resolved include: how to best improve system acquisition and requirements; how best to build and launch space assets; determining when those assets are needed and deciding who will control them. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has found that most recent national security space programs have experienced schedule, cost-growth and performance shortfalls due to a mismatch between requirements and resources. The Department of Defense is trying to change its approach to space systems acquisition to solve those problems.

There are a number of ways that operationally responsive concepts can be used to improve the Pentagon’s space capabilities. Advanced Technology Concept Demonstration projects, for example, have been created to support informed investment decisions at critical milestones of a program.

Testifying before a joint U.S. House and Senate committee in 1998, Keith Hall, then assistant secretary of the Air Force for space, said a military space plane or orbital maneuvering vehicle would be more cost-effective — and more effective operationally — if it is air launched as opposed to employing an expendable launch vehicle or a multi-staged, reusable launch vehicle. He added that its attributes would support all missions within the spectrum of conflict.

The 2001 Commission to Assess National Security Space Management and Organization recommended that a deterrence strategy for space must expand beyond the need for maintaining assured access to space and on-orbit operations. It also should include space situational awareness, Earth surveillance from space, global command, control and communications in space, defense in space, and homeland defense and power projection facilitated by space.

The deficiencies and shortfalls of existing space capabilities, however, became more pronounced after the turn of the century, according to the Air Force’s 2001 Final Mission Need Statement: “…space activities are constrained by a lack of operational flexibility and responsiveness, high costs, and a limited on-orbit maneuver capability.

Current launch systems require months of preparation time. As a consequence, the [ Defense Department] was unable to orbit any new payload in time to affect the outcome of Desert Storm. At about $10,000 [per pound ] to low-Earth orbit, high launch costs substantially limit the number of payloads we can afford to put into space. Current systems also lack substantial maneuver capability, which limits our ability to conduct military operations in space.”

The mission statement goes on

to identify urgent needs directly related to ORS , including on-demand launch of space assets, a higher launch rate, the ability to recover on-orbit space assets, servicing of on-orbit space assets, rapid space asset repositioning, recoverable spacecraft and rapid transport of spacecraft to, through and from space.

Others have noted that new reusable, low-maintenance space launch systems and micro satellites require little to no fundamental new technology or scientific breakthrough. They will, however, require a transformation in the way we acquire space systems. Former Unders ecretary of the Air Force Peter B. Teets also shares the view that the importance of ORS is not only rapid launch but rapid payload integration and on-orbit activation as well.

Today, responsive space technology development programs are the enablers of the Air Force’s deterrence strategy for space. Beginning in fiscal year 2005, however, congressional budget cuts to the administration’s military space budget have since threatened to slow progress in this area.

Congress views these space system technology programs as “unsustainable” due to their technical immaturity and life-cycle costs. In the past, for example, congressional committee staffs have raised concerns about the $1 billion projected cost growth of the Space-Based Infrared System High satellites, over the out-years, as evidence of a lack of budget discipline.

Poor program management on the part of the Air Force has been cited as the prime reason for cost overruns. Defense Department officials concluded that these problems are a result of the erosion of government’s capability to lead and manage the space-acquisition process. To a large extent, the Senate’s markup of the 2007 Defense Authorization bill, in which roughly $200 million was cut from the Transformational Satellite Communications program and $66 million from the Space Based Radar effort, illustrates lawmakers’ frustration with the Pentagon’s difficulties managing its space projects. In general, there is a belief on Capitol Hill that the Air Force is simply rushing its space programs in the absence of established goals for achieving technology maturity.

Compounding this problem is the confusion between the intelligence community and the Defense Department regarding which organization determines requirements for such programs as the Joint Space Based Radar Program, which has resulted in further delays in achieving system readiness.

Further, the Air Force appears to be experiencing difficulty moving beyond its ORS mission statement rhetoric and articulating, in precise engineering terms, how to develop an ORS capability. It is important to note, however, that the Senate Armed Services Committee saw fit to add funds to the Air Force 2007 request for ORS.

Perhaps another solution may be found within the Air Force ORS program. U.S. national security space planners have recently showed a greater appreciation for new approaches to integrating and synchronizing the combat actions of U.S. fighting forces. Lt. Gen. Robert C. Kehler, deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., in particular, has noted that Strategic Command is now looking at how best to combine various space assets to yield what he calls persistence surveillance. This effort is supported by his involvement as co-chair of a Department of Defense executive committee responsible for examining the sensor-based management of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance , as part of an ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review roadmap assessment exercise.

The executive committee’s primary responsibility is to study combatant commanders’ requirements for sensors without regard for their delivery platform.

With its focus on emerging market niches such as suborbital imagery, some in the emerging suborbital reusable launch vehicle industry might be positioned to seize the opportunity to provide space launch services to the Air Force in support of its evolving combat missions. Similarly, the Air Force also could benefit from working with space entrepreneurs, in which greater range of innovations, concepts and technologies can be achieved resulting perhaps in helping to reform the Air Force’s procurement strategy and mechanisms. Specifically, such a relationship could result in the Air Force:

  • learning how to do lots of small discrete projects with multiple approaches in parallel, including restructuring “prime-contractor-tailored” acquisition templates;
  • using fixed-price milestones, “Other Transaction Authority” agreements, grants, prizes and other non- Federal Acquisition Rules mechanisms;
  • preserving insight into a company’s performance by encouraging the time-honored philosophy of “build a little, test a little;” or
  • promoting small, quick single-technology demonstrations that are within the capabilities of innovative small companies, rather than one large and long multiple-technology project that must go to a single prime contractor (e.g, X-33).

Entrepreneurial U.S. companies are investing heavily in suborbital reusable launch vehicle technologies. The allure of the concept of reusable launch vehicles can be found in its comparative advantage in production costs.

At this juncture in America’s space history, what, if any, are the potential contributions a crew-capsule/ expendable launch vehicle design offer to our military and commercial space capabilities in the long-term? Assuming NASA’s near-term human space flight efforts are guided by an Apollo Program-type model, what are the consequences of continuing to improve the national space transportation capabilities in the future? This nation should be funding cutting edge, space system technology research.

Without question, the opening of the 21st century has ushered in new and complex national security challenges that will undoubtedly continue in the long term. Within this context, the space theater can no longer be viewed as solely a force enabler. Space provides a crucial dimension to the effectiveness of the U.S. warfighter. Strategic space systems must be available at a moments notice whenever and wherever needed, and the Defense Department acquisition process is of paramount importance for achieving mission assurance on the ground, in the air and at sea.

Budget and programmatic difficulties experienced by the Air Force on Capitol Hill brought about a new mindset among our military leaders. Their new focus is how to shore up problems that have served to disrupt technology development plans of critical space assets. One approach that holds promise for Pentagon procurement reform is encouraging space entrepreneurs to vie for ORS study contracts.

The Defense Department must be willing to build on the potential demonstrated by suborbital reuable launch vehicle operators. Similarly, civilian agencies of the federal government must help this process along by, among other things, showcasing entrepreneurial reusable launch vehicle resources; facilitating technology exchanges among vehicle integrators and component and subsystem suppliers; sponsoring discussions between vehicle integrators and the ORS payload industrial community, as well as commercial designers of orbital platforms and spacecraft; etc.

A new partnering between the Defense Department and the commercial space sector would only enhance the American space experience.

Ruben Van Mitchell is a aerospace policy consultant whose clients include commercial suborbital launch companies.