WASHINGTON – The U.S. Space Force plans to conduct in 2023 a “responsive space” demonstration where private launch companies will be challenged to deploy satellites on short notice. 

The demonstration is part of a congressionally directed effort to create a “tactically responsive launch” program. Congress inserted $50 million in the 2022 defense budget, arguing that DoD should figure out how to use commercial launch services during a conflict to replace damaged satellites or deploy new ones quickly if needed.

Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, head of the U.S. Space Systems Command, said the Space Force needs to “understand where we need tactically responsive launch, but more importantly, tactically responsive space.”

Speaking April 20 during a C4ISRNET online conference, Guetlein said the Space Force, like the rest of the U.S. military, has to prepare for future conflicts against technologically advanced competitors and will need capabilities for “rapid space replenishment.”

The Pentagon predicts that rival nations like China and Russia during a conflict will use space weapons to interfere with or destroy U.S. satellites.

A demonstration of responsive launch took place last year when the Space Force flew the Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) mission on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. The whole process from the start of the mission planning to launch took less than 10 months, said Guetlein. The launch company was given 21 days to integrate the payload and get it to orbit.

“Rather than just focusing on the launch problem we’re focusing on the entire launch to capability-on-orbit construct,” he said. “We’re going to drastically accelerate that capability that we did under TacRL-2  to ensure that we can fill a gap in a time of crisis or conflict.”

The $50 million congressional add-on for tactically responsive launch will fund a demonstration not just of launch vehicles but also of capabilities to integrate payloads faster. Companies like Virgin Orbit have actively lobbied for funding for this program, which would boost small launch services providers that don’t require conventional launch facilities and claim they can respond within days or hours. 

Congress has been critical of DoD for not funding tactically responsive launch. Defense appropriators said the $50 million should be spent on a comprehensive demonstration of responsive mission planning, deployment of satellites, on-orbit operations and delivery of data.

Guetlein said the demonstration in 2023 will inform future budget requests and the results will give the Space Force a better grasp of “where technically responsive space can fill a wartime or crisis requirement.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...