This story was a 2023 Society for Professional Journalists Dateline Award finalist for beat reporting in a newsletter or trade publication.
WASHINGTON — In the summer of 2005, Col. Jay Raymond, now a general and the U.S. Space Force’s highest-ranking officer, was finishing a tour at the Pentagon as a strategist in the Office of Force Transformation, a defunct organization tasked with developing strategies to spur innovation across the Department of Defense.
Just before leaving that post, Raymond co-authored a paper with retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski titled “Operationally Responsive Space: A New Business Model.” In the paper, they argued that the Air Force, which was then the service primarily responsible for the DoD space portfolio, needed to develop a way to meet the operational demand for space capabilities on faster timelines.
Their proposal? Create a mechanism to rapidly develop and launch space capabilities that can augment or replace satellites destroyed in conflict, a concept known as operationally responsive space.
“Rather than treating our operational- and tactical-level commanders as a lesser requirement in the overall national space plan, this business model designs a capability to meet their specific warfighting needs,” Raymond and Cebrowski, then-director of the force transformation office, wrote. “Done correctly, this approach can complement and add to national space capabilities.”
Seventeen years later, and with Raymond now leading the newly created Space Force, the department is still working in fits and starts to close the business case for that approach. In that time, the Pentagon created and canceled an Operationally Responsive Space office dedicated to developing an on-demand launch capability that could augment or reconstitute existing satellite constellations. Despite lawmakers creating a formal Tactically Responsive Space Launch program, and appropriating tens of millions of dollars to fund it, the Space Force has yet to prioritize or budget for the effort, relying on congressional adds to conduct demonstrations.
SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket demonstration
There are signs the Space Force may finally be ready embrace the concept of responsive launch in the coming years — a paradigm shift that would allow the service to reconstitute satellites within a few days or weeks of notice rather than the months and years it often takes today.
Russia’s recent demonstration of a destructive anti-satellite weapon, China’s advances in space technology and concerns about a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific are driving pressure from Congress. And the creation of the Space Force in 2019 provides the leadership and bureaucratic heft needed to develop the underlying doctrine.
Outside experts and military officials point to recent and planned demonstrations, momentum in the commercial sector and a growing acknowledgement of the threats to military space assets as reasons to think the service may overcome the bureaucratic, budgetary and technological hurdles that have slowed this effort over the last two decades.
Doug Loverro, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy and now a consultant for government contractors, told C4ISRNET that while he doesn’t see the service prioritizing responsive space and launch capabilities at the level he thinks they should, he does see signs that “the Space Force is trying to think about this.”
“They’re coming along, but certainly they’ve been slower to adopt it than one might have expected,” he said in an interview. “This is a long build-up.”
In 2007, two years after Cebrowski and Raymond’s paper was published, the Air Force established the ORS office, responsible for developing and acquiring satellites and other space capabilities. It was located at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
ORS worked with other space technology offices as well as industry to develop small satellites and find rides for them on launch systems. The first ORS mission, dubbed ‘Jumpstart’, launched in June 2008 on a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket. The mission carried three payloads and demonstrated concepts for rapid launch.
By 2013, the Air Force was ready to cancel ORS. Its mission focus was too niche, officials said at the time, arguing the service didn’t need an office dedicated to responsive capabilities and instead should integrate those concepts throughout its space portfolio. However, lawmakers liked the agile structure of ORS and the idea of an acquisition office designed to move fast.
For the next several years, the service repeatedly asked Congress for permission to close ORS until finally, in fiscal 2018, lawmakers included a provision in that year’s National Defense Authorization Act to create a new Space Rapid Capabilities Office in its place. That office, the Space RCO, is focused on quickly developing high-need space capabilities with less emphasis on launch.
Loverro said ORS in the early 2000s was “a vision in search of a mission and in search of a capability.” The Air Force hadn’t developed a doctrinal case for responsive space, the Space Force had not yet been established and a robust market for small satellites and launch vehicles hadn’t materialized.
Raymond’s paper, it seemed, was ahead of its time.
Understanding threats in space
While ORS was successful in demonstrating some innovative launch concepts, the office’s former Program Element Monitor Col. Eric Felt told C4ISRNET in a June 24 interview at Kirtland the industrial base and military space architecture at the time were not postured to support or justify it.
The situation is different today, Felt said, and it’s giving rise to a new momentum for on-the-ready, responsive space capabilities. There are more companies developing small satellites, loosely defined as any space vehicle that weighs less than 1,200 kg. Commercial launch costs have dropped significantly and companies are developing innovative ways to lift rockets that don’t require the level of range infrastructure a larger launch might demand.
New hybrid architecture concepts that include large constellations of small satellites in diverse orbits are emerging within DoD that are more feasible candidates for replenishment than the exquisite systems the department has traditionally relied on.
“Now we’re at the point where we have these proliferated [low Earth orbit] constellations that are very militarily useful, those are the ones that can be reconstituted,” said Felt, who now serves as the head of AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate and will soon take a new position as the deputy executive of the Space Force’s Space Architecture and Science and Technology Directorate. “In that sense, it was kind of early to need back in the 2000s when we were doing it. I think it’ll be more successful this time.”
The Pentagon’s understanding of threats in space has also changed in recent years. When people talk about the need for responsive space capabilities today, they talk about the likelihood of a future conflict in which China or Russia destroys U.S. satellites on orbit.
“The first shots in pretty much every wargame we have now, especially if it’s Russia or China, are fired in space and cyberspace,” Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., told C4ISRNET in a June 15 interview.
Waltz, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing for DoD to invest in the capabilities and infrastructure needed to replenish satellites should they become a target for an adversary.
“We built our architecture decades ago when we did not have adversaries in space. It was not considered a warfighting domain,” he said. “So, we have a lot of our eggs in just a few baskets. We have these massive satellites that are phenomenally capable, but are also big, fat, juicy targets. And the Chinese know that, the Russians know that.”
Growing concern about adversarial threats in space was the motivation for a recent letter Waltz co-authored with Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., and sent to House appropriators. The April letter called for a $150 million increase to the Space Force’s budget for responsive space in fiscal 2023, specifically for a program called Tactically Responsive Launch that was created to demonstrate and mature concepts.
Twenty-three lawmakers signed on to the letter with Waltz and Horsford. The committee ultimately recommended two-thirds of what the group proposed, including $100 million in its version of the fiscal 2023 defense policy bill.
National Defense Authorization Act
Despite pressure from Congress to prioritize Tactically Responsive Launch, the Space Force has yet to request funding for the effort. Instead it has relied on lawmakers to appropriate funding each year, including $15 million in fiscal 2020, $50 million in fiscal 2021 and another $50 million in fiscal 2022.
The service is also late completing a report on its plans to develop responsive space capabilities, which was required in the Fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act and due for delivery with the release of the DoD budget in March.
Waltz said he’s had “good conversations” with Space Force and Air Force leaders about responsive space capabilities, noting that he’s encouraged the service is spending the funding Congress has provided. Still, he’s concerned the Space Force isn’t moving fast enough.
“I think it’s a priority, but I mean, a priority is reflected in the budget,” he said. ‘And while I’m pleased with the increase that the Space Force got this year . . . it’s not enough to get us to the new architecture in the timeline that I, others and the intelligence community believe we need. So, it’s a time factor that’s the key issue.”
Space Force leaders, including the commander of Space Systems Command Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, have said they’re putting in the work to develop a comprehensive plan for responsive space that isn’t centered on launch.
“We’re trying to understand where we need rapid space capabilities and rapid space replenishment going forward,” Guetlein said April 20 during the virtual C4ISRNET Conference. “Rather than just focusing on the launch problem, we’re focusing on the entire launch to capability on orbit construct.”
The program office in charge of executing the Space Force’s tactically responsive space space efforts is called Space Safari. Modeled after the Air Force’s Big Safari program office, the team is focused on demonstrating end-to-end responsive space and launch capabilities, understanding what commanders in the field might need from the capability and informing the Space Force’s understanding of and planning for the concept. The program partners with the Rocket Systems Launch Program, which provides launch services.
The first Tactically Responsive Launch mission, TacRL-2, flew last summer on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket. Carrying an experimental space domain awareness satellite, the rocket took off from aboard a modified Stargazer L-1011 aircraft positioned about 40,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
The mission set records for its acquisition and fielding timelines. Whereas it typically would have taken the Space Force two to five years to develop and launch a satellite, Space Safari was able to complete the process in 11 months. Once the payload was ready, the program entered a six-month standby period and two months later awarded defense firm Northrop Grumman a contract.
The program then executed a 21-day call-up period during which it retrieved the payload, integrated it with the launch vehicle and the aircraft and sent it to orbit.
How quickly can Space Force launch?
For the next mission, which Space Safari has named “Victus Nox,” the Space Force wants to broaden its scope from focusing on launch to looking more closely at the supporting elements of responsive space. At the same time, it wants to compress the launch call-up period to just 24 hours from three weeks. The mission doesn’t have a set launch date, but the program office is targeting mid-2023 and expects to award a contract for the rocket by the end of the summer.
Lt. Col. MacKenzie Birchenough told C4ISRNET in a June 27 interview the shortened timeline for the Victus Nox mission is a major leap for the program.
“This isn’t just taking the next step, but it’s really pushing as far as we can to what we think that we will need and want in real-world scenarios going forward,” she said. “Getting to that 24 hours is a challenge that’s been provided to us from Space Force leadership. We wouldn’t be going after it if we didn’t think it was in the realm of the possible, though.”
Arthur Grijalva, deputy director of Space Systems Command’s Space Warfighting Division, told C4ISRNET in the same June 27 interview that Victus Nox will shape decisions about how the Space Force might incorporate and budget for responsive space in the future.
“It’s not just about launching something really fast,” Grijalva said. “We’re going to actually have a real capability that warfighters will be able to use at the end of it.”
As Birchenough and her team plan for the Victus Nox mission, they are also working closely with the combatant commands, particularly U.S. Space Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, to understand and document their requirements.
“There are a bunch of different mission areas that tactically responsive space could apply to,” she said. “Where we’re at right now is trying to put all of those needs together and getting them documented into official tactically responsive space requirements.”
Birchenough said she expects her office to have at least drafted requirements with SPACECOM before the Victus Nox mission, but noted those will likely be revised with lessons learned after the demonstration.
The office is also planning an industry day in late August to get feedback and ideas from companies and will participate in some tabletop exercises aimed at understanding how tactically responsive space could be used in future conflicts.
Space Safari’s work is funded almost entirely through the Tactically Responsive Launch program that Congress created, though it did receive about $8 million through an internal Space Systems Command funding transfer in fiscal 2022. Because the Space Force has yet to include the effort in its annual budget request, Birchenough said it’s hard for the office to plan ahead for its missions, invest in long-lead parts and make sure it has the required satellites and sensors on hand.
“No matter how fast you move, if you don’t plan ahead, the supply is not going to be there on short notice unless we do that planning and we have that funding ahead of time,” she said. “Being able to have stable funding in the future would help us really get after all of those different missions that we might be asked to do.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.