Uncertainty Looms for 3-year-old ORS Office Amid Declining Budget Projections

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Josh Hartman. Credit: SpaceNews/Johnny Bivera
Josh Hartman. Credit: SpaceNews/Johnny Bivera

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office has demonstrated in its three years of existence that there are alternative ways to design and build military spacecraft, but a variety of factors are contributing to a sense of uncertainty about the office’s future, government and industry sources said.

Over the last 20 years, space systems have become an integral part of tactical warfighting. The U.S. Air Force still operates under the Cold War-era construct of buying and building a small number of large and expensive satellites for its operational constellations. Sensing that a new approach to military space was needed, the Pentagon stood up the ORS Office in 2007 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

The ORS Office has a three-tiered strategy for delivering timely data from space platforms. This ranges from using existing space assets in different ways to the ultimate ORS goal of being able to build and launch augmentation or replacement satellites in just a few days. One of the office’s first developmental efforts, TacSat-3, proved its military utility in a yearlong demonstration and soon might be transferred into operations.

ORS-1, considered the office’s first true operational satellite, is viewed by many as an important test of how well the new model works. The satellite is designed to meet an urgent reconnaissance need from U.S. Central Command and is on an aggressive two-year development track that should have it on orbit by year’s end. The success of that program is likely to factor into how aggressively the department pursues the ORS construct in the future, said Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command.

“We are now at a decision point, I think,” Kehler said during an April 13 media briefing at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. “The question is, where do we go from here? … I think we are at a point where we can now be smart enough about what we have done, and I think we can get to the point now where we decide how to go forward.”

But there is concern that the office is already being shortchanged. The Pentagon has requested $94 million for the office in 2011, $30 million less than was appropriated for this year, and budget documents show that figure shrinking further in each of the three following years. The resources dedicated to the ORS Office have limited its ability to make progress on a very challenging task, said Victoria Samson, an analyst with the Secure World Foundation.

“What they’re doing is a capability that absolutely is needed, but getting to it is perhaps taking longer than they anticipated,” Samson said. “They’ve got some pretty tight parameters they’re trying to hit, with a $40 million price point for satellites and $20 million for launches, and they’re trying to do really quick turnarounds, which is not what the space launch community is known for.”

While almost every office in the Defense Department is feeling budget pressure these days, the ORS Office faces another challenge in the fact that it is funded by the Air Force but directed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said Josh Hartman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

“ORS is in that double jeopardy area, where not only are they not benefiting the current Air Force Space Command priorities … but they’re also outside of their control,” said Hartman, the former head of space programs in the Pentagon’s acquisition office. “They don’t get to tell ORS what to do, so therefore they would much rather keep the money and be able to pull the strings on it.”

Hartman, an ORS supporter from his days as a defense committee staffer on Capitol Hill, said the office is underfunded and needs a budget of about $300 million a year carry out its mission. Its management structure, which includes an executive committee of more than 20 people, also needs to be streamlined to maintain focus, he said.

To effectively include small satellites in its space architecture, the Pentagon must provide more funding and steady production opportunities for industry, said Jim Armor, vice president of strategy and business development for ATK Space Systems and Services of Beltsville, Md., which provided the satellite platforms for TacSat-3 and ORS-1.

The reason for a declining ORS budget profile in out-year projections is not entirely clear, Armor said. It could be solely related to budgetary pressures affecting the whole Defense Department; it could be a perceived lack of utility by Pentagon leadership; or it could be dissatisfaction with the way ORS Office management has approached its mission, he said.

Regardless of what happens to the office, there is no denying what it has been able to accomplish in just a short time, Armor said.

“ORS is happening,” he said. “The transformation is under way, and I do think the ORS Office should be pretty proud for breaking the paradigm.”