The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

TacSat-2 was one of the first ORS missions, but got caught in a bureaucratic squabble about the use of its sensors after launch. (credit: USAF)

How to tell your ORS from a hole in the ground

The idea lends itself perfectly to the kind of technofantasies that one typically sees in articles written by military officers who have read too much Tom Clancy: a tank battalion commander, charging through the desert, needs to know what is ahead of him. So he puts in a call to headquarters and within minutes a C-17 cargo plane flying over the ocean drops a large rocket from its cargo bay. The rocket is pulled vertical by a parachute, fires, and within minutes injects a small reconnaissance satellite in orbit that flies over the battlefield, beaming the images straight down to a display screen in the commander’s vehicle.

The basic idea of ORS has been around for a long time in various forms. Ever since the beginning of the space age military officers have sought to make satellites more directly responsive to military missions.

That used to be a fantasy. But space technology has now reached the point where it is in the realm of the possible. For about seven years now members of the US military have been working toward developing what is called Operationally Responsive Space, or ORS. The concept behind ORS is to have space assets waiting on the ground when hostilities commence, ready to be launched within several days’ notice, and capable of providing useful services to military commanders in the field. The military has provided contracts to foster development of several rockets: to SpaceX for the Falcon 1, and to AirLaunch for its propane-powered QuickReach rocket dropped from a C-17. It has also bought several of Orbital Sciences proven—but pricey—Minotaur solid-fueled rockets. The military has also funded a handful of initial demonstration satellites, designated TacSats, to prove the concept of ORS. The amount of money spent so far is chump change when compared to typical military space projects, and less than a day’s worth of operations in Iraq.

But for the past several years ORS has made far less progress than its advocates had hoped. Part of this has been due to setbacks in developing cheap rockets. But other limiting factors have been a combination of doctrinal, policy, and turf issues—and the difficult, and still unanswered, question of exactly what ORS can and should accomplish. As Wernher von Braun is reputed to have once said, beating gravity is easy, it’s the paperwork that’s hard.

Everything old is new again

The basic idea of ORS has been around for a long time in various forms. Ever since the beginning of the space age military officers have sought to make satellites more directly responsive to military missions. The Air Force proposed using its X-20 Dyna-Soar spaceplane as a “quick-response” platform in the early 1960s. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) sought to decrease the launch times for its reconnaissance satellites in the 1960s in order to provide crisis reporting, albeit to strategic users. The Air Force also sought various ways of putting satellite communications capabilities into the hands of tactical military forces starting in the 1960s. By the 1980s the Air Force even explored the idea of launching a spaceplane off the back of a 747 in order to place small satellites into orbit quickly, or to serve as an observation platform. And by the late 1980s and early 1990s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was funding several efforts to develop small satellites that could be launched on the Pegasus rocket.

For much of this time the primary limitation was technology. For instance, the NRO ultimately concluded that having satellites on ground alert ready to launch during a crisis did not matter because their method of returning data to the ground still took too long. And even into the 1980s communications technology required big receiving dishes, which were not easily portable. The Pegasus rocket also proved very expensive for the small-sized payloads that it could place in orbit.

The idea of combining quick launch, quick checkout, and services provided directly to tactical commanders did not really come about until the first Persian Gulf War, when dissatisfaction with Cold War systems prompted a lot of military officials to demand better access to capabilities previously intended to serve strategic forces. However, throughout the 1990s, most of the effort to provide better space support “to the warfighter” took the form of adapting existing big and expensive systems to reach new users. The satellites changed very little, but ground terminals were improved, and policies were adopted to give more military personnel access to systems that had previously been restricted primarily to users in the intelligence community.

There were reasons why things happened this way during the 1990s, and some of those reasons continue to shape how ORS is being implemented—or not implemented—today. For starters, even though the Cold War was over, the United States military had invested tens of billions of dollars in developing its fleet of large satellites, and radically changing systems would have been expensive at a time when budgets were decreasing. In addition, the end of that long superpower struggle created a situation that was not conducive to a rapid change in approach: no significant threat to American satellites, a backlog of satellites awaiting launch, a substantial and expensive ground infrastructure, and a way of doing things that many people were used to, and good at.

What exactly is ORS supposed to do? Will this approach be better than using existing, more capable, spacecraft operating for up to a decade in Earth orbit? Will it be better than other solutions, like high-altitude drones like Global Hawk?

But in addition to the bureaucratic reasons, technology was still a limiting factor. For instance, even the simplest satellites in the military’s fleet, like GPS navigation satellites, can take weeks to become fully operational, and more complex spacecraft can take months. In order to meet the immediate needs of a commander in the field, all the long poles in the tent have to be shortened—rockets have to be ready faster, satellites have to require less prep on the ground and less checkout in orbit, and people in the field have to be equipped and trained to take advantage of them right from the start. And of course, all this has to be done very cheaply.

But even assuming that all of these challenges can be met, that opens up new questions. What exactly is ORS supposed to do? Will this approach be better than using existing, more capable, spacecraft operating for up to a decade in Earth orbit? Will it be better than other solutions, like high-altitude drones like Global Hawk? How many satellites do you buy? What types? How long do you let them sit in storage awaiting a clear requirement for them? (There are at least a handful of examples of big military satellites, like the DSCS 3-A3 comsat, sitting in storage for several decades awaiting launch.) Those are tough questions, and they are hard to answer until the basic concepts of inexpensive procurement, quick launch, quick availability, and direct support to tactical commanders are demonstrated. Getting to that point has not been easy. ORS advocates have not reached that point yet.

ORS gains momentum

Things began to change early in this decade for numerous reasons. For one thing, Operationally Responsive Space obtained a champion in the form of Air Force Brigadier General Simon “Pete” Worden. Worden, first at the Pentagon, and then as the Director of Development and Transformation at Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, began arguing for the concept and, more importantly, obtaining seed money to fund both cheaper, rapid-response rockets, and small, inexpensive tactical satellites designated TacSats. DARPA also got into the act after a long hiatus of not funding space projects, and spent some seed money on ORS-related technology.

As a result of these efforts, ORS finally seemed to have some steam. Rockets were being developed and several spacecraft were under construction. But by 2006 there were indications that ORS was stumbling. TacSat-1’s launch, originally scheduled for 2004, was repeatedly postponed due to delays with the Falcon 1 rocket. Worden had also retired from the Air Force, denying the program its champion. In March 2006 Falcon 1—without TacSat-1—failed on its first flight, and its second flight was repeatedly postponed, before it too ended in failure. That same month the Government Accountability Office reported that the DoD lacked an overall strategy for pursuing ORS—in other words, a plan that explained who would run the program, what they would build, and how it would be used in the field.

TacSat and domestic surveillance

But by the end of 2006 there was a glimmer of hope. In December, TacSat-2 was launched into space atop a Minotaur rocket flying out of Wallops Island. The satellite carried several payloads, but the two biggest were an advanced hyperspectral sensor and a device for intercepting communications. The launch went off without a hitch and finally it appeared as if ORS’ advocates would have their chance to prove the technical viability of the concept. However, in March Space News revealed a rather bizarre development: although the satellite had been flying for several months, both payloads had remained switched off as the bureaucracies battled over who had ownership of their data and who legally controlled their operation.

Exactly what was going on with TacSat-2 is still not clear to outside observers, and there are probably numerous interpretations by those involved in the dispute. TacSat-2 was not a satellite owned by the intelligence community, but it carried intelligence sensors, and certainly one possible interpretation is that this was a classic fight over turf: the intelligence bureaucracy (apparently the National Reconnaissance Office) did not want somebody else doing a job that they were supposed to do. And, of course, some of ORS’s proponents had always intended to bust up some rice bowls at the NRO, and that was apparently what was happening.

But apparently the intelligence officials who kept TacSat-2 from becoming fully operational argued that federal law strictly prohibits the use of intelligence collection sensors over American territory, and until policies were implemented for the legal use of the sensors, they had to stay off. Although the Bush administration has demonstrated less regard for the civil liberties of American citizens than previous administrations, there are still government officials who believe that the government is not supposed to spy on its own citizens without a court-ordered warrant.

There is, in fact, a long history concerning the legality of the use of intelligence satellites for domestic surveillance. In spring 1976 President Gerald Ford, responding to embarrassing revelations about the use of intelligence agencies for spying on American citizens, signed Executive Order 11905. That order contained a restriction on electronic surveillance activities within the United States or against US persons overseas.

Certainly it would not have benefited ORS advocates if their very first launch immediately ran into a buzzsaw of controversy over domestic spying. But the end result was that the proof of concept for ORS was severely restricted.

According to documents declassified by the National Reconnaissance Office this past year, the NRO initially sought a waiver of the Executive Order. However, ultimately the NRO received “interim authority from the Department of Defense to perform essential domestic satellite photo and electronic data collection for research and development and engineering test purposes.” [You can download a PDF of one of the documents here.] The NRO was to minimize its research and development and system engineering test activities to those requirements “which clearly cannot be met realistically by other means.” Any data inadvertently obtained on US persons or organizations could not be used for any other purposes, and had to be destroyed at the earliest practical time. This interim authority apparently became the effective policy, but whether it was modified or changed in the decades since then remains classified. It does seem likely, however, that the basic tenets of the policy continued—photographic and electronic interception over the United States could only be done with a court order, or for engineering test purposes, and in the latter case the data would have to be destroyed after the tests had been completed.

It is possible that the NRO objected that TacSat-2 had been launched without its operators implementing proper procedures to follow Executive Order 11905 (or whatever policies may have superceded it). Another possibility is that public and congressional controversy over the Terrorist Surveillance Program also made various officials nervous of running afoul of the law.

This raises an important question: why hadn’t these issues been worked out before the launch? Was a lack of leadership, or personnel, for the ORS effort a factor? Certainly it would not have benefited ORS advocates if their very first launch immediately ran into a buzzsaw of controversy over domestic spying. But the end result was that the proof of concept for ORS was severely restricted.

Momentum lost?

The January 2007 Chinese ASAT test appears to have changed the dynamic for ORS. It helped to publicly elevate Operationally Responsive Space, but to date it does not appear to have actually improved its prospects. Military officers and members of Congress began to view ORS as a means of replenishing satellites that might be destroyed by an enemy’s ASATs, but not necessarily an alternative to existing ways of supporting forces in the field. And because ORS suddenly became trendy, people began arguing over who should control it.

By April the Department of Defense delivered to Congress its plan for how it will pursue ORS. Up to now, ORS has essentially been a loosely defined and directed series of space and rocket hardware procurements, not what is commonly defined as a “program” in the military. A congressionally-mandated ORS office was established at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and although it is headed by an Air Force colonel, it is still a joint office primarily staffed by personnel from various services and government agencies and is extremely small by military standards. With ORS now having a higher profile, there were numerous organizations and personnel arguing over which organization should get the ORS office once it starts producing operational satellites—as opposed to the currently experimental TacSats. Naturally there are many people in the Air Force who want to give that responsibility to the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). But a number of ORS supporters warn that not only has SMC had a bad track record for the past decade or so (witness the major problems with the Space Based Infrared System), but SMC is also hostile to the very concepts that ORS stands for.

Although it is easy to label bureaucratic turf battles as mere power grabs, they usually center upon a justifiable belief that expertise and knowledge—and authority—rest in certain organizations and not others. Those who want to control ORS probably believe that they are best suited to implementing it. They may be wrong, but it is unlikely that they are inherently dishonest in their beliefs.

Other problems still remain to be overcome. Some of these issues were entirely predictable for any longtime observer of the American military space program. For instance, TacSat-1 has sat on the ground for so long due to launch vehicle delays that it is effectively obsolete. TacSat-2 has already proven most of its capabilities, meaning that there is no good reason to launch TacSat-1. This highlights one of the potential problems for any operational program: how many satellites do you build, what capabilities do you give them, and how long do you plan to keep them in storage? There may be answers to these questions, but developing the right procurement strategy and not wasting money on spacecraft that will never fly, is not going to be easy.

By October another wrinkle emerged. In addition to the TacSats already built or in production, and the standardized spacecraft bus that the new ORS office is trying to define, ORS also includes a program called TacSat-L, for “Legacy”, which involves using existing satellites already in orbit and adapting them for tactical needs. One such effort involves using a 20-year-old NRO signals intelligence satellite to provide support to tactical forces. But the NRO actually wants to shut the satellite off rather than keep paying for it to support a mission that it no longer controls. This highlights another aspect of bureaucratic turf battles—the money is always a key sticking point.

Until ORS acquires a new champion, and a clearer definition of exactly what it is supposed to provide, and how this will be better than the current system of a few big, expensive, but highly capable satellites already orbiting the Earth, ORS remains at risk.

There has also been a weird, if predictable, struggle within the military bureaucracy over exactly what “responsive” means. Is ORS a specific set of hardware—inexpensive satellites, inexpensive quick-launch rockets? Or is ORS more of a philosophy, a way of providing services to military forces faster than in the past? Those who argued for the latter, broader definition claimed that actions like purchasing commercial transponder bandwidth were “responsive” to the needs of military forces in the field. But the ORS activists saw this as an attempt to undermine their efforts. By calling what the traditional military space bureaucracy does “responsive,” they claimed, the Air Force could undercut efforts to build small satellites and small rockets. There is a danger that if ORS is adopted by the traditional military space bureaucracy, instead of a set of capabilities it will simply become another adjective inserted into the bombastic jargon that the military thrives on: e.g. “Providing operationally responsive space capabilities to achieve full spectrum dominance to sharpen the tip of the warrior’s spear.”

All this highlights the importance of providing a clear demonstration proof that advocates, and critics, can measure. TacSats 2 thru 4 cost around $40 million apiece. Falcon 1 is supposed to cost around $7 million per launch, but the DoD has been forced to use Minotaur rockets costing over $11 million apiece. That’s such a small amount of money that any discussion of costs seems ridiculous. But ORS is based upon the argument that it is possible to make space systems cheap enough that they can be placed in the hands of relatively lower level personnel, so every bit of savings helps. The real questions are what capabilities is the military acquiring for those costs, and are they worth it? A demonstration proof may not supply a definitive answer, but it can help clarify the questions.

Does ORS have a future?

Will ORS make any further progress in 2008? TacSat-3 is currently scheduled for launch in June atop a Minotaur launched from Wallops Island. To date the amount of money spent on ORS is miniscule by DoD military space standards. But even though the costs are low, they are still important, and Minotaur launches cost significantly more than ORS advocates want to spend. If TacSat-3 reaches orbit and performs as planned, then ORS will gain some more momentum. And if Falcon 1 not only becomes operational, but also meets its target cost, then ORS may be able to transition to the next phase.

But the policy and bureaucratic questions still remain, and until ORS acquires a new champion, and a clearer definition of exactly what it is supposed to provide, and how this will be better than the current system of a few big, expensive, but highly capable satellites already orbiting the Earth, ORS remains at risk.