WASHINGTON — With the Pentagon’s stated goal of trimming its annual spending by $100 billion within five years, the 2012 budget guidance U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent the military services this summer likely contains a number of weapons programs and offices headed for extinction.
But Gates apparently is one of the many who have been convinced the military must have the capability to rapidly augment and reconstitute its space systems, which is the raison d’être for the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office. The 2012 budget guidance is classified, but it contains very strong and specific language in support of the ORS mission, director Peter Wegner said in an Aug. 24 interview.
Over the last 20 years, space systems have become an integral part of tactical warfighting. The U.S. Air Force, for its part, continues to build a small number of large and expensive satellites for its operational constellations. Sensing that a new approach to military space was needed, Congress directed the Pentagon to stand up the ORS Office in its 2007 National Defense Authorization Act.
The ORS Office exists solely to deliver capabilities to the combatant commands and takes direction from Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
All of the work done by the ORS Office falls under one of three levels, or tiers, of capability. Tier one capabilities are those that can be created out of existing resources and be implemented in minutes to hours. Tier two capabilities are those that are ready and waiting to be called up, integrated and launched in days to weeks. Tier three capabilities are those that can be rapidly developed and transitioned to operations in months, as opposed to traditional satellite development timelines that are measured in years.
In its first three years of existence, the ORS Office has undertaken activities in all three of its mission tiers. Chilton has tasked the office to meet urgent warfighter needs on four occasions. Most recently he asked the office to develop options for an infrared missile warning augmentation capability. Chilton was briefed this month on the results of the study and directed the office to develop potential acquisition strategies in the coming weeks, Wegner said.
The ORS Office also has worked with other Pentagon organizations on a number of experimental satellites. The TacSat series of spacecraft are intended to be developed rapidly and cheaply to demonstrate the military utility of various emerging technologies. TacSat-1, which was never launched, featured a ship-tracking payload and a low-resolution imaging payload. TacSat-2, launched in 2006 on a Minotaur rocket, featured a medium-resolution imaging payload that was tasked directly by warfighters on the ground.
TacSat-3 launched in 2009 — also on a Minotaur — and has completed a yearlong demonstration of its hyperspectral imaging capability, which breaks light into hundreds of spectral bands to allow specific materials to be identified from space. The new capability proved to be so valuable that TacSat-3 was transitioned to operations in recent months.
There were many lessons learned from the TacSat-3 development, but most important was that a satellite of its size and cost — 400 kilograms and $90 million — really does have military utility, Wegner said. Now the biggest challenge is getting users to understand how to use hyperspectral products efficiently and effectively, because they are very unlike traditional imagery products, he said.
TacSat-4 has an ultra-high frequency communications payload and will be placed into a highly elliptical orbit. The satellite is awaiting launch sometime next spring, Wegner said.
The ORS Office currently has two major endeavors it is trying to get off the ground. The most pressing is the ORS-1 satellite, which was requested by U.S. Central Command to meet an urgent need for space-based infrared and optical imagery. It is the ORS Office’s first operational satellite development and is on an aggressive two-year development schedule.
ORS-1 prime contractor Goodrich ISR Systems of Danbury, Conn., is in the process of mating the spacecraft bus with its primary payload, and the satellite is on track to launch by the end of the year, Wegner said.
ORS-1 is viewed by many as an important test of how well the new approach to building spacecraft can work. Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, in April indicated the success of this program will likely factor into how aggressively the Pentagon pursues the ORS construct in the years ahead.
The other major undertaking for the ORS Office is standing up the Rapid Response Space Works, or Chileworks, facility at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. The shop will be the functional arm for the office’s tier two developments, where various satellite components can be warehoused for call-up and assembly at a moment’s notice.
Millennium Engineering of Chantilly, Va., in July was selected to manage Chileworks, and the company is expected to staff it with about a dozen scientists and engineers at a cost of $5 million to $7 million annually, said Air Force Maj. Rusty Powell, deputy chief of the ORS Office’s tier two division.
Chileworks’ first development project will be to build and launch a small synthetic aperture radar satellite by 2012. The project is something of a dry run for Chileworks to work out all of the kinks that are expected to pop up in establishing a satellite development shop. The ORS Office is currently in source selection for the satellite’s platform and radar payload and will have contracts in place by the end of September, Wegner said.
With a limited budget, Chileworks will not be able to produce every type of space capability that the United States could possibly need. Chilton is responsible for setting the facility’s priorities, and he will likely issue directions in the near future.
“We had a meeting just last week and General Chilton was very clearly describing his priorities,” Wegner said. “It was clear to me he’s been thinking about this a lot.”
<strong>ORS Office at a Glance</strong>
Mission: To develop, launch, activate and employ militarily useful space capabilities to reconstitute or augment existing space systems, and to create innovative solutions to urgent warfighter needs at the instruction of U.S. Strategic Command.
Headquarters: Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
Top Official: Peter Wegner
2010 Budget: $134.3 million
Personnel: 60 military and civilian government personnel