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SDA Looks To Change How US Military Buys Satellites

For decades, the Pentagon's massive space budget has been primarily allocated to traditional geostationary satellites; but the four-year-old Space Development Agency (SDA) is looking to revolutionize this approach.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Tue Aug 15 2023Written by Zac Aubert

For decades, the Pentagon's massive space budget has been primarily allocated to traditional geostationary satellites; but the four-year-old Space Development Agency (SDA) is looking to revolutionize this approach.

The agency is embarking on an ambitious mission to build a low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellation using commercially produced small satellites and laser communications terminals from a diverse range of suppliers.

The SDA's visionary initiative is named the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. It features a two-layered network: a Transport Layer of interconnected communication satellites and a Tracking Layer composed of missile-detection and early-warning sensor satellites.

The initial batch of satellites in Tranche 0, labeled as the "warfighter immersion tranche" by SDA, aims to provide military users with an opportunity to delve into the technology and gain a deeper grasp of the potential of LEO satellites for tasks such as missile tracking and data relay. Tranche 1 is scheduled for launch in the years 2024 and 2025. This phase will involve the deployment of a total of 126 satellites designed for the Transport Layer, which facilitates communication among satellites, and an additional 35 satellites dedicated to the Tracking Layer, essential for detecting and providing early warnings for missile threats.

The agency has issued requests for proposals for a significant number of satellites in Tranche 2. Specifically, there are active solicitations for 172 satellites intended for the Transport Layer of Tranche 2, alongside 54 satellites earmarked for the Tracking Layer of the same phase.

Traditionally, defense contracting would award such projects to one or two prime contractors. However, SDA is leveraging the commercial satellite market by sourcing satellites from multiple vendors, emphasizing interoperability through standardized optical links.

Wide Array of Suppliers

SDA has placed orders with various satellite manufacturers to realize its innovative vision. Key suppliers include:

  • York Space Systems: 62 satellites ordered; 10 delivered.
  • SpaceX: 4 satellites ordered; 2 delivered.
  • Northrop Grumman: 56 satellites ordered.
  • Lockheed Martin: 52 satellites ordered.
  • L3Harris Technologies: 20 satellites ordered.
  • Raytheon Technologies: 7 satellites ordered.
  • Ball Aerospace: 10 satellites ordered.

Various contractors are employing different satellite buses, with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and L3Harris utilizing commercial buses from Terran Orbital, Airbus U.S. Space and Defense, and Maxar Technologies. SpaceX and Raytheon Technologies are using in-house designs.

Disruptive Approach

SDA's approach represents a significant departure from the traditional Department of Defense (DoD) procurement method. Instead of lengthy development cycles, SDA follows a more agile strategy. The agency aims to incrementally integrate new technologies as they become available, enabling quicker deployment and reducing the risk of technological obsolescence.

The shift towards proliferated LEO architectures challenges the status quo and impacts traditional defense contractors. While these larger satellites won't vanish, SDA's disruptive approach could reshape the industry's landscape.

SDA's Success and Challenges

Despite its relatively small size (around 200 personnel), SDA has significantly influenced the military space market. The agency's commercial-like model, involving fixed-price contracts and frequent competitions, has allowed for the rapid integration of new technologies and capabilities.

However, SDA faces challenges in coordinating the integration of multiple vendors and segments into a large, proliferated constellation. The agency's ability to meet its objectives and deliver functional operational constellations will determine its ultimate success and impact on the space industry.

“SDA will be key to rapidly delivering space capability to our warfighters...I fully support their strategy, and we will maintain their structure and culture to let them continue to move fast and do what they do best.” - Frank Calvelli, Space Force’s Senior Acquisition Executive 

As the Space Development Agency continues its mission to build a proliferated LEO constellation, the future of military satellite procurement is being reshaped. By embracing a diverse range of suppliers and agile development cycles, SDA aims to provide advanced space capabilities to the warfighter rapidly and cost-effectively. The agency's approach, though ambitious and disruptive, holds the potential to transform the way military satellites are procured and deployed.