Victus Nox Illustrates the Rise of Tactically Responsive Space

Recent Demonstration Highlights Critical Capability for Delivering Rapid Response to Orbit

As space evolves into an increasingly hostile warfighting domain, rapid response capability is
becoming an essential part of Department of Defense (DOD) operations. That’s why when the
Space Force and its industry partners successfully fielded, launched and initiated satellite
operations during its Victus Nox demonstration, the record-setting feat foreshadowed the
emerging significance of the Tactically Responsive Space (TacRS) mission. But to assert
“responsive space” capability effectively, the Space Force must account for the unexpected,
while at the same time collaborating with its commercial launch and satellite partners to facilitate TacRS mission success.

“Tactically responsive space is a construct that explores the use of in-space operations in a
more responsive manner than we did in our Cold War and post-9/11 ways, where we had the
time to launch and deliberately integrate and update capabilities into constellations,” said Elara
Nova senior partner and Col (Ret.) Rob Bongiovi. “Launch is hard from a physics perspective,
but we know how to do it. The hard problem is the end-to-end problem: everything from deciding what you’re going to launch, to the where and why, into the operational employment and force presentation process.”

Responsive Space an Emerging Operational Concept

The TacRS construct first emerged in the past decade, with an original emphasis on “responsive
launch” as a capability. Today, the “Tactically Responsive Space” label adopted by the DOD more
accurately reflects the reality that launch is just one factor – albeit an integral one – in
establishing rapid response capability in space.

“‘Responsive space’ means the ability to respond to a threat quickly with a minimal and
affordable amount of prep work,” said Col (Ret.) Bongiovi, the former Director of the Launch
Systems Enterprise Directorate with the United States Air Force. “Launch is just the tool to make it happen, and one that is really about getting mass to orbit. You have to know you can launch a payload and not break it.”

The TacRS requirement is an operational concept that has developed from the DOD’s historical
approach to national security launch. In the traditional space environment, there were few
threats to U.S. assets. But in an increasingly contested domain, TacRS is really about preparing
for the unexpected.

Launching payloads into space, however, is typically an expensive and lengthy process that is
planned years in advance. Throughout history, the U.S. was largely able to perform launch
operations with minimal interference. But now, emerging capabilities from Russia and China
have changed the dynamic of space operations.

The Role of Launch in TacRS

In order to rapidly field an operational space-based capability, however, the new asset must first
successfully reach orbit.

“Launch is definitely the riskiest part of the satellite’s lifetime and we put a big process in place
to buy down that risk,” Col (Ret.) Bongiovi said. “Now, we are inserting urgency into the process. This TacRS capability is required in terms of being able to react to a threat.”

With the objective of establishing TacRS capability by 2026, the Space Force executed its Victus Nox mission in September of 2023. The operational targets for Victus Nox were far ahead of the Space Force’s most recent responsive space demonstration in June of 2021, when Northrop Grumman executed its Tactically Responsive Launch 2 (TacRL-2) mission. In that demonstration, the Space Force acquired a payload, mated it to Northrop’s Pegasus XL rocket
and launched it into orbit within 21 days.

“Tactically Responsive Launch 2 (TacRL-2) had some pretty aggressive timelines associated
with it,” Col (Ret.) Bongiovi said. “But Victus Nox accelerated all those timelines and included getting the satellite turned on in operations – which is very good in my mind.”

Victus Nox Shatters Responsive Space Timelines

For Victus Nox, the Space Force partnered with industry partners Firefly Aerospace and
Millennium Space Systems – A Boeing Company. The space domain awareness payload built by
Millennium Space Systems was transported to a launchpad and mated to a Firefly Aerospace
rocket within 57 hours, just ahead of the established 60-hour mission goal.

Once the launch notice was given by the Space Force, mission requirements stated the payload
and its rocket were to be launched within a 24-hour window. In the Victus Nox demonstration,
the launch was accomplished in 27 hours, after a three-hour weather delay.

After reaching orbit, the space domain awareness satellite was then tasked with initiating
operations within 48 hours. The Victus Nox mission accomplished this requirement in 37 hours.

“Victus Nox is one of those moments where now that we’ve publicly demonstrated we can do
this, then it’ll become more commonplace and cheaper,” Col (Ret.) Bongiovi said. “The demonstration will enable the operation planners to think through what we can do now with this capability and perhaps provide a better solution in the interest of national security.”

Commercial Partnerships Critical to TacRS Success

The success of Victus Nox can be attributed in part to the strengths of the commercial space
industry and serves as an example of how the Space Force can leverage these strengths to
establish TacRS capability.

“The baseline systems the commercial industry are developing for their needs is reasonably
close to what we need,” Col (Ret.) Bongiovi said. “Commercial developments can be faster and we can usually buy them as a service or in a way that avoids bureaucratic inertia. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There has to be an understanding of the whole scenario in how you employ these assets in the interest of national security.”

The real work, now, is to incorporate that capability into even faster operational timelines.

However, enabling TacRS mission success means the Space Force must make the appropriate
preparations and inform its commercial partners of its military requirements. In Victus Nox, the
Space Force provided its commercial partners with seven “menu” options of its tentative
requirements for the mission.

“If people are going to try to start launching within 24 hours and we have a two-week process to
start notifying people, ‘How do we change the boundaries or operations on that?’” Col (Ret.) Bongiovi said. “These are not going to be things that you can do if you haven’t already launched,
operated, trained and exercised these procedures. The technical process of having not only a
launch vehicle ready, but the payload ready and integrated into the operations is why those
‘menus’ are necessary.”

“Victus Haze” the Next Iteration for TacRS

The Space Force is already seeking to capitalize on its momentum for future TacRS
demonstrations. In collaboration with the Defense Innovation Unit, the Space Force is already
planning its next TacRS mission – dubbed “Victus Haze” – to develop this capability further.

“In the last decade, we’ve seen both small and large launches get down to six to three month
timelines, but even those timelines are not operationally relevant,” Col (Ret.) Bongiovi said. “We’re in a world where it is realistic to regularly launch a space capability in a few weeks or a month on the large launch side and a day to a week on the small launch side.”

Now, as a consulting firm seeking to facilitate opportunities to merge military requirements with commercial space capability, Elara Nova is positioning itself to orchestrate these connections between the Space Force and its commercial partners.

“Our team has expertise across the spectrum for this kind of problem,” Col (Ret.) Bongiovi said. “We have people who’ve worked at all levels on the military side and on the industry side, who really understand the nature of the threat and the speed at which we need to operate. We can support the execution of those plans, not just for a one-off demonstration, but for a real capability that the nation can afford and that impose costs on our enemy or defeats a threat.”

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