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Heinrich Lifts Hold On Air Force Secretary Nominee

Operationally Responsive Space Program to Continue

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is lifting his hold on Secretary of the Air Force nominee Deborah Lee James. The New Mexico Senator blocked the confirmation process last week until questions were answered regarding planned cuts to the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program based at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. ORS was set up in May 2007 to develop and field low-cost satellites that deliver tangible operational results to the military.

The announcement to release his hold comes after Senator Heinrich received confirmation that Air Force leadership agreed to continue the ORS program in fiscal year 2014. Read the letter from the Air Force.

Last year, the Air Force proposed cancelling ORS, but congress rejected the proposal.  Despite a congressional mandate to maintain an ORS office in the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (Public Law 112-239), the Air Force again proposed terminating the program this year.  In September 2013, the Air Force initiated a de facto shut down of the ORS program as personnel at the office began receiving notices of termination. 

“Congress has been very clear in rejecting the proposed termination of this important program.  The purpose of my hold was to ensure the Air Force followed the law and allow for the continuation of the ORS program and the work they are doing for our national security,” said Sen. Heinrich. “ORS will ultimately save the Air Force and taxpayers money.  In a time of serious fiscal constraints, it is critical that we continue to look for ways to reduce costs over time by making marginal investments in programs that deliver tangible benefits to the military.  I appreciate the Air Force’s cooperation and reconsideration, and I look forward to continue our work together to ensure the ORS program remains intact.”

Senator Heinrich placed the hold on the Air Force Secretary nominee on September 25, 2013. He then met with Acting Secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning, on September 26. On September 27, the Air Force provided official notification that it would:

  • Maintain the ORS office, separate from the Space Missile Systems Center (SMC) organizations, in place at least through Fiscal Year 2014.
  • Maintain the current ORS staff, including contractors, for on-going ORS projects and activities.
  • Determine a mission and payload for the ORS-2 satellite, which had been on hold pending a decision from Air Force leadership.
  • Complete the “strategic plan” required by Public Law, 112-239. 

Senator Heinrich described Ms. James as a well-qualified nominee and looks forward to supporting her. “I’m very impressed with her as a nominee, and I’m pleased we were able to reach an agreement. Ms. James was very straight with me during the whole process and I have no reservations supporting her nomination,” said Sen. Heinrich. 

Background: The John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 (Public Law 109-364) established the ORS office to respond to the needs of the joint force commander and to build an enabling infrastructure to support the rapid deployment of space capabilities at lower costs. 

Citing command structure concerns, the Air Force proposed terminating the low-cost ORS mission in fiscal years 2013 and 2014.  In both years, congressional defense committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate rejected the proposed termination and congress appropriated $105M for ORS in fiscal year 2013.  PL 112-239 sought to alleviate command structure concerns by establishing a new joint program office with the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) but instructed that the office remain separate from SMC.  Congressional defense committees have made the following determinations:

FY13, National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4310), Public Law 112-239:"There is within the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center of the Department of Defense a joint program office known as the Operationally Responsive Space Program Office (in this section referred to as the `Office'). The facilities of the Office may not be co-located with the headquarters facilities of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center."  Furthermore, the Conference Report required a report "not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, that discusses how the existing and future technologies and operational systems developed in the ORS program are to be integrated into service acquisition programs to meet combatant command requirements." ? 

FY14 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1197) Senate Armed Services Committee Report (S. Rept. 113-44):  “Congress awaits the reports required from the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 on how the Department of Defense (DoD) will implement the legislation… the Committee Report notes that “most if not all the concepts championed by the ORS office such as low cost launch, disaggregation, and common bus structures are now being embraced by DoD in times of fiscal constraint.”

FY14 Senate Defense Appropriations (S. 1429):The Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2013, provided $105,000,000 for continuation of the Operationally Responsive Space program, in accordance with the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act [NDAA].” With these funds the “Air Force proposed to acquire a low-cost weather satellite, which would leverage prior investments in bus and sensor programs, which the Committee supported.” With that said, “this plan has not been approved by the Department of Defense despite the identification of a key requirements gap in weather data collection.” Further, the “failure to provide a path forward for the Operationally Responsive Space program stands in stark contrasts to the congressional rejection of the fiscal year 2013 proposal to terminate the program.”