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U.S. Space Command supports use of ‘responsive launch’ to deter China and Russia

Dickinson said the U.S. military should take advantage of commercially available launch options and vehicles that can operate from multiple locations
WASHINGTON -- An 11-year hiatus in orbital launches from Wallops Island on Virginia's eastern shore is set to end Dec. 11 with the launch of a Minotaur 1 rocket from a pad owned by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and operated with the help of NASA. The payloads atop the 19-meter rocket, a modified Minuteman ICBM, are the U.S. Air Force's TacSat-2 experimental optical-imaging satellite and NASA's GeneSat-1, a 10-kilogram biology lab.

WASHINGTON — Gen. James Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command, endorsed the idea of partnering with commercial launch companies that can demonstrate fast turnaround operations, a concept known as tactically responsive space.

“We need commercial mission partners to build the capabilities to replenish our military space assets,” Dickinson said Nov. 29 at a Mitchell Institute online event. 

Pressed by Congress, the U.S. Space Force last year started a program to demonstrate responsive launch and recently awarded contracts for a 2023 mission. National security space launches typically are planned years in advance and rely on fixed infrastructure. 

Dickinson said the U.S. military should take advantage of more flexible, commercially available launch options and vehicles that can operate from multiple locations. Given recent advances in Chinese and Russian anti-satellite weapons, he said, responsive launch would likely be needed during a conflict to augment constellations or replace damaged satellites. 

U.S. Space Command has to prepare for “dynamic space operations,” he said. “This may include rapid software updates, some type of a responsive launch, and maneuver capabilities.”

“We must greatly expand our ability to keep pace with the threat,” said Dickinson. “The joint forces’ ability, I think, to project and employ military power is predicated on the continuous availability of space based capabilities.”

“I really like the tactically responsive space concept,” he said. “including rapid preparation of rockets and payloads and conducting immediate launch turnarounds, and we are seeing that in the commercial industry right now.” During a conflict, he said, having the ability to replenish assets would deter adversaries as it would make it costly for adversaries to deny the U.S. access to satellites.

Dickinson cautioned that U.S. military doctrine for space warfare is “quite frankly, kind of in its infancy.” More work is needed by the U.S. and allies, to “design dynamic tactics techniques and procedures for space operations.”

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...