As the US Air Force Turns Its Focus to Space, This Small Team Could Lead the Way

U.S. Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space office work to launch satellites faster and cheaper.

Marcus Weisgerber/Defense One

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U.S. Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space office work to launch satellites faster and cheaper.

Once seen as a threat to traditional acquisition channels, the Operationally Responsive Space office is making it faster and cheaper to put new capabilities into orbit.

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.— “I believe we will be fighting in space in the next 10 years,” Gen. David Goldfein warns the dozen-or-so Air Force officers gathered in a conference room here. What’s more, the fighter pilot-turned-chief of staff says, “Space superiority is going to be central to who we are as a service.”

As the Air Force — and policymakers at the Pentagon and in Congress — rethink how the military should build and retain this space superiority, it’s clear that the service needs faster, cheaper ways to put spacecraft on orbit. This small office at Kirtland just might show the way.

Created in 2007 by order of the deputy defense secretary, the Operationally Responsive Space office is a handful of uniformed officers who build satellites relatively quickly and cheaply using small teams of contractors and a unique on-base factory. After several years in which Air Force leaders tried to kill the shop — it competes, somewhat, with the Space and Missile Systems Center that has long produced many of the service’s most advanced and costly spacecraft — ORS is now getting praise from the chief of staff.

Goldfein toured the factory here last month and emerged impressed. He called “pretty significant” the August launch of a satellite just three years after an urgent operational request came in. Built by MIT Lincoln Labs, it will team up with larger, more expensive satellites to help map objects in space.

“They’ve cut years off the process, and millions of dollars,” he said. “We saw a great example of how to actually, on a risk-based model, achieve speed in acquisition.”

Modeled on the Air Force’s slightly older Rapid Capabilities Office, ORS goes to work after a commander sends an urgent battlefield need, something that cannot be filled by an existing satellite, and the Pentagon approves the job. Contacts are awarded, a satellite is built and eventually launched — generally speaking, after about three years and $100 million. Compare that to major Air Force satellite programs that often take a decade or more and cost upwards of $1 billion.

Goldfein noted that “there’s a limit to what they can build”; for example, ORS designs satellites to last perhaps a few years, not decades like a Global Positioning System satellite. Nor is their record perfect. Two years ago, the rocket carrying the team’s fourth satellite broke up shortly after launch.

But the office and its fast-moving ways are increasingly attractive — not just to former Air Force officials who have pressed for this kind of thing but current ones as well.

“As we built a space enterprise in an uncontested domain, we had the luxury of going slow because our adversaries were not pushing us,” Goldfein said. “It was an environment there was little competition when it came to testing the environment. We’re in a different place now. Like the nuclear enterprise, space is the other enterprise where we’re going to have to look at speed as a key attribute for success. How we get there is going to be as much a cultural change as a tactical change.”

That kind of cultural change is taking hold across the military. In recent years, the defense secretary’s Strategic Capabilities Office has led the services’ efforts to introduce new capabilities not by developing clean-sheet weapons but by modifying and upgrading existing ones. The Air Force itself is developing its next bomber with the Rapid Capabilities Office instead of standard acquisition channels.

“We actually have some great models out there that are working,” Goldfein said. “The question is whether we can make that shift.”

The Factory

Inside an all-white room behind a thin plastic sheet, a satellite about the size of a refrigerator is being pieced together by a small team of workers wearing lab coats. It’s the ORS group’s sixth satellite. If all goes as planned, airmen here at Kirtland will use the satellite to measure the height and direction of the sea.

The satellite is being built through a unique arrangement here on a military base, not at some far-off defense contractor factory. Its bus and payload — made, respectively, by Northrop Grumman and the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Lab — were built for other projects that didn’t materialize. A company called Millennium Engineering is putting it all together.

When it heads to orbit next year, it will launch on a SpaceX rocket with other non-military satellites, a ride-share arrangement that one Air Force official compared to taking a bus instead of driving alone in a car. The price is a mere $10 million, a fraction of what it would cost to fly on its own rocket, said Lt. Col. Eric Moomey, chief of programs in the Operationally Responsive Space office.

If it succeeds, the Air Force will have gained another option for going to space — and, along with then 15-year-old SpaceX, dealt another blow to the monopoly held by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin United Launch Alliance.

The prospect of far cheaper launches led one officer to ask Goldfein whether this would encourage the Air Force to build satellites that don’t last as long — allowing them to be built more cheaply, launched more quickly, and using more up-to-date technology.

Goldfein’s visit here cames as the service’s space forces find themselves at a crossroads. Earlier this year, lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to create a new military space force, akin to the Marine Corps, in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. But they did pass a series of space reforms that nixed the Air Force’s plans to create a three-star general billet at the Pentagon that would oversee space operations.

Goldfein said four factors will guide the Air Force’s approach to space: The “combination of lower cost to launch, the digitization of payload to make it smaller, the profitability of space for commercial industry and adversary activity.”

“Those four issues are going to come together in ways that are going to drive us to be far more adaptive in space going forward,” he said. “I do think that what they’re proving is that there’s a different path to get things into space quickly.”

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