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Lawmakers Support Operationally Responsive Space As It Hits Hurdles

By | August 20, 2007

      By Jen DiMascio

      The Pentagon’s new office to rapidly produce space capabilities for commanders has so far received support from Capitol Hill, but the fledgling program faces a number of obstacles as it moves forward.

      Col. Kevin McLaughlin, the director of the recently formed Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, gave a nuts and bolts presentation at a meeting of the group’s executive committee. The office will need more funding and better organization, but a strategic framework could help overcome those hurdles in the future, according to McLaughlin’s briefing.

      Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton, in line to become the next Strategic Command commander, also gave a briefing at the meeting, in which Chilton recommended that the Air Force assume control over ORS, sources said.

      That message that left some befuddled about the organization’s way forward, sources said. According to one official present at the meeting, if Congress had wanted the Air Force to make operationally responsive satellites, it would have asked the Air Force to do so.

      Air Force Space Command responded to discussion about Chilton’s briefing in a statement saying it supports the ORS program as it was laid out in the fiscal year 2007 Defense Authorization Act.

      “We are supporting the leadership of the [Department of Defense (DOD)] executive agent for space and the commander of US STRATCOM in working to make ORS a success.”

      Chilton’s briefing pointed to a potential sore point for ORS similar to a smoldering debate over who will control the military’s unmanned aerial vehicles, the official said.

      In the case of future satellites, other services are concerned that if the Air Force assumes control of the program, design tradeoffs will come first from items sought by the Army and Navy.

      Another tension within ORS is whether to place investments in large existing satellite programs, or pursue smaller, lighter and cheaper new satellite systems.

      The Aerospace Industries Association of America has an ORS working group with members who work for companies producing both kinds of satellites.

      As such the group advocates continuing to balance investment between both types and maintain consistent funding for the effort, according to J.P. Stevens, vice president of the space systems division at the Aerospace Industries Association of America.

      The ORS office received strong support from Congress so far this year, but current language addresses the issue of the program’s internal balance. Each bill recommends additional funding for the effort but for slightly different purposes.

      The House appropriations bill adds $20 million, but $6 million of that should be used for classified efforts, according to the committee’s report on the bill.

      The House authorization bill reflects a concern that the Pentagon has not balanced the funding for low-cost payloads, spacelift and launch control capabilities and put the bulk of its money in existing launch vehicle purchases, responsive launch vehicle development, responsive payload and bus development, and responsive launch control capabilities, according to a report on the bill. The bill recommends rebalancing ORS funding to develop more responsive capabilities. House authorizers also added $30 million for launch and payload design and testing.

      The Senate Armed Services Committee added $15 million to the program, noting that ORS should pay more attention to sensor development.

      The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee has yet to mark up its version of the bill, and industry officials said they are eager to learn how ORS fares.

      Though challenges with ORS remain, support from Congress is encouraging to Stevens, who said several years ago people questioned whether the effort should move forward at all.

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