WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate defense appropriators recommended providing $111.5 million for Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) programs next year, $25 million more than the Pentagon requested and $82 million more than proposed in a companion bill passed in the House.
ORS programs are intended to field space capabilities quickly in response to emerging requirements as identified by military forces in the field. As envisioned, ORS would provide niche capabilities, filling gaps left by the Pentagon’s primary satellite constellations.
The Pentagon’s first operational ORS craft, which was placed on the development fast track to fulfill an urgent request from U.S. Central Command, was launched June 29. Several experimental ORS craft are either in orbit or in the planning pipeline, among them the U.S. Navy’s experimental TacSat-4 communications satellite, which was launched Sept. 27.
In general, the Pentagon’s experimental and innovative space efforts fared better in the Senate version of the 2012 defense appropriations bill, drafted Sept. 16, than in the House version. Another example is the Rocket Systems Launch Program, under which the U.S. Air Force converts excess strategic missile hardware for purposes including launching small or experimental satellites.
The House version of the defense spending bill recommends just $33.6 million for the Rocket Systems Launch Program next year, whereas the Senate version provides the full $158 million requested by the Air Force.
Another example is space technology development in research, development, test and evaluation for the Air Force, for which the Pentagon requested $115 million next year. The Senate bill fully funded that request, while the House version recommends $70 million. Similarly, the Air Force’s $75 million request for advanced spacecraft technology was fully funded by the Senate; the House bill recommended $39 million.
Senate appropriators shared, however, the skepticism of their House counterparts on an innovation-minded program dubbed Assured Satcom Services in a Single Theater (ASSIST), under which the Pentagon would lease the full capacity of a commercially owned communications satellite over its 15-year lifetime. The Pentagon requested $416 million for ASSIST next year, according to the report accompanying the Senate bill.
The House spending measure recommended applying $335 million of the ASSIST funding to the Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom procurement program, which would boost that account to $804 million. The Senate bill recommends no funding for ASSIST and trims $9 million from the $468 million Wideband Global Satcom request, which would cover the purchase of an eighth satellite in the series.
The Senate appropriators voiced their concerns with ASSIST in the report accompanying their bill. “The Committee has learned of a number of innovative proposals from commercial providers, each with unique potential benefits and tradeoffs,” the report language says. “It does not appear that these proposals have been fully evaluated by the department.”
Meanwhile, the Air Force’s main satellite constellations for applications including missile warning and communications generally were fully funded in both bills, with one notable exception being weather satellites. The Air Force requested $445 million for its next-generation Defense Weather Satellite System, which is under contract to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Redondo Beach, Calif. The House bill provided $225 million of that total, while the Senate legislation recommends terminating the program entirely and sets aside $250 million for a new weather satellite competition.
In remarks at an Oct. 4 luncheon here, Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton said the service remains committed to the weather mission but is not wedded to any particular approach. “We are looking at the messages Congress is sending us and also looking at the legitimate requirement, not only on the [Defense Department] side but obviously we have partners at [civilian agencies] who also rely on this weather data,” she said. “So I think you will see a continued commitment to the weather mission, but how we go about it given the concerns around this program, we’re still working our way through that.”
The Senate version of the 2012 defense appropriations bill fully funds the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System satellite program at $482 million. The House recommended providing $277 million for the effort.
The Senate bill also fully funds the Missile Defense Agency’s request for research, development, test and evaluation for the planned Precision Tracking Space System constellation of missile tracking satellites at $160 million. The House bill recommended providing no funding for that program.