WASHINGTON — The compromise version of the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act keeps language calling for the U.S. Space Force to fund a tactically responsive space program — continuing a three-year push for the service to prioritize the capability.

The policy bill urges the Space Force to create a stable funding line for the effort and work with other Department of Defense stakeholders to coordinate requirements for an on-demand space launch capability that is responsive to operational needs.

The House approved the bipartisan bill Dec. 8, and the Senate is expected to consider it next week.

The bill also includes a seemingly innocuous, yet significant change in the language lawmakers have used when referring to the capability. In previous policy, Congress called for a “responsive launch” program, but the new bill uses the term “responsive space.”

That change echoes Space Force leaders, who have stressed that having the ability to quickly field new satellites is not just about launch support, but also ground infrastructure, payload development, operations and sustainment.

“Rather than just focusing on the launch problem, we’re focusing on the entire launch to capability-on-orbit construct,” Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, commander of Space Systems Command, said at the C4ISRNET Conference in April.

Congressional interest in responsive space comes amid concerns that U.S. space systems face growing threats from adversaries like China and Russia and a space environment that is increasingly congested with commercial satellites and space debris. If a satellite is targeted or damaged, lawmakers say, the U.S. needs to be able to rapidly replace it.

“We built our architecture decades ago when we did not have adversaries in space. It was not considered a warfighting domain,” Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., told C4ISRNET in June. “So, we have a lot of our eggs in just a few baskets. We have these massive satellites that are phenomenally capable, but are also big, fat, juicy targets. And the Chinese know that, the Russians know that.”

For its part, the Space Force has been crafting an acquisition strategy for the effort and is planning its second responsive space demonstration for mid-2023. For that mission, dubbed “Victus Nox,” the service’s Space Safari program office will work with Millennium Space Systems to produce a spacecraft in a matter of months and Firefly Aerospace to launch it with only 24 hours notice.

The service is also working with U.S. Space Command to develop requirements for a future program. SPACECOM had expected to complete a responsive space needs study this summer, but a spokeswoman told C4ISRNET that work is now expected to conclude early next year.

According to a briefing slides obtained by C4ISRNET, the Space Force expects to finalize its planning for a tactically responsive space program in 2024.

To date, funding for responsive space demonstrations has mostly come from congressionally led initiatives. Lawmakers appropriated $50 million in fiscal 2021 and 2022, and the policy bill recommends $100 million in fiscal 2023.

The Space Force hasn’t confirmed whether it will seek funding for the effort in its fiscal 2024 budget. The briefing slides indicate the Defense Department is “assessing resource needs” related to tactically responsive space.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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