The Senate Armed Services Committee’s (SASC) version of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Bill suggests that responsive commercial and military satellites could help the U.S. military reconstitute constellations of military satellites when adversaries disrupt their functions during conflicts.
The SASC bill asks the U.S. Space Force (USSF) Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond to provide a briefing to the congressional defense committees “on the feasibility of using the prize authority for launch responsiveness to replace key national security satellites and reconstitute essential constellations during a conflict,” according to a summary of the bill.
The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, P.L. 111-358, provided for such prize authorities–generally less than $50 million competitive awards to industry and academia–to solve pressing national problems.
USSF and the National Reconnaissance Office are increasingly relying on commercial satellites to provide a breadth of coverage and to ensure that an adversary is unable to disable U.S. infrastructure and leave military forces, intelligence agencies, and national leaders in the dark during conflict.
The latter, carried on a modified version of the company’s “Stargazer” L-1011 aircraft from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., delivered the satellite to orbit in the early morning of June 13.
Stargazer released the three-stage Pegasus about 40,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, and the rocket’s first stage ignited to carry the TacRL-2 satellite to low Earth orbit (LEO).
Such responsive launch may become useful, if a critical U.S. satellite sustains damage and becomes inoperable.
“Tactically responsive launch, as a concept, seeks to introduce speed, agility, and flexibility into the launch enterprise in order to respond to dynamic changes in the space domain or an operational theater and insert or replace assets on orbit much faster than standard timelines to meet emerging combatant command requirements,” Space Force has said.
Raymond said that the June 13 Pegasus launch represented “a clear signal to our strategic competitors that we will not cede access to space” and that he had challenged USSF’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles AFB, Calif., about a year ago to demonstrate a responsive space capability, whereupon SMC delivered an integrated Space Domain Awareness satellite ready for launch in 11 months, a more than five-fold reduction in the normal delivery time.
Space Force has said that SMC’s new Space Safari program office, which is to integrate mature technologies quickly to respond to needs, supported TacRL-2 as the office’s first mission.
“The USSF will use this information to improve upcoming TacRL missions with the Space Safari office planned to launch in 2022 and 2023,” Space Force said. “Tactically Responsive Launch is the first step toward the USSF acquiring a tactical space mobility and logistics capability to support combatant command’s future requirements for tactical spacepower.”
Space Force has had other similar efforts underway. Last year, USSF awarded Virgin Orbit subsidiary VOX Space a $35 million contract to launch three dedicated missions using its LauncherOne rocket to deliver 44 small satellites to LEO (Defense Daily, Apr. 13, 2020).
SASC’s version of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Bill also wants DoD Comptroller General Michael McCord to brief congressional defense committees on the long-term outlook for satellite communications needs. The SASC bill also directs Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to provide to the congressional defense committees a detailed briefing on the commercial space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance needs of the 11 combatant commands.