The concept of operationally responsive space (ORS) is widely endorsed, but there are differences between the combatant commanders and the intelligence/space community as to just what ORS should be, according to a watchdog agency.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessed ORS, a Department of Defense (DOD) effort, in a report to the Senate Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee.

“DOD is making some progress in developing the ORS concept, but whether it will meet warfighter requirements is unclear, principally because the concept is in the early stages of development and not commonly understood by all members of the warfighter and national security space communities,” the GAO found.

This program, while unlike many others, proves a common truism, that communication is vital in forming the concept of a development effort, the report stated.

“Our prior work examining successful organizational transformations shows the need to communicate to stakeholders often and early and to clearly define specific objectives,” the GAO advised.

ORS aims to provide intelligence to warfighters that they most need, when they need it.

To meet that goal, DOD has attempted to transform warfighter needs into requirements for the space-based system, and to define just what sort of system would fill that need.

DOD issued the ORS Implementation Plan in April and is also developing new ORS guidance documents.

Those intentions may be well advised. But “GAO found disparity in stakeholder understanding of the ORS concept within the warfighter and national security space communities.” The GAO detailed the trouble spots:

“This disparity exists because DOD has not clearly defined key elements of the ORS concept and has not effectively communicated the concept with key stakeholders.

“For example, initial ORS planning documents are broad and lack the specificity needed to guide the ORS concept, according to some members of the warfighter and national security space communities.

“Moreover, officials from the intelligence community were concerned about DOD’s lack of consultation and communication with them regarding the ORS concept.

“Without having a well-defined and commonly understood concept, DOD’s ability to fully meet warfighter needs may be hampered.”

DOD to its credit recognized the need to integrate ORS into existing DOD and intelligence community processes and architecture, but it has not fully addressed how it will achieve this integration, according to the GAO.

The idea in developing ORS is to avoid costly duplication of capabilities and services, the GAO noted.

“However, integrating national security space systems can be a complex activity, involving many entities within DOD and the intelligence community,” the watchdog agency cautioned.

It reported earlier that existing DOD intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) activities already face significant integration challenges, and now has sounded a further warning that adding new ORS systems into the existing ISR enterprise will increase the challenges of an already complex and challenging environment.

“Given the … immaturity [of the ORS concept], members of the national security space community have raised concerns about how the ORS concept will be integrated with existing DOD and intelligence processes and architecture, and voiced concerns about being burdened by an additional new requirements process specific to ORS,” the GAO told Congress.

Nonetheless, as GAO described earlier, DOD is developing a process unique to ORS for submitting ORS warfighter requirements.

Work needs to begin now, with no time to waste, according to the GAO.

“The complexity of the national security space environment calls for DOD to begin to adequately plan integration of the ORS concept now to help ensure that DOD avoids the risk of duplicative efforts and wasted resources,” the GAO cautioned.

It recommends that DOD define ORS key terms, how timely satisfaction of a need is evaluated, and what joint force commander needs the ORS concept is trying to satisfy.

As well, DOD needs to establish an ongoing communications and outreach approach for ORS. And Pentagon leaders need to identify steps required to ensure integration of the ORS concept into existing DOD and intelligence community processes and architecture, the GAO concluded. The DOD partially concurred with those recommendations.

The report titled “Defense Space Activities: DOD Needs to Further Clarify the Operationally Responsive Space Concept and Plan to Integrate and Support Future Satellites” and numbered GAO-08-831 can be read in entirety at on the Web.