Future of Space Development Agency Debated
Disagreements are brewing over the integration of the Space Development Agency into the Space Force.
The agency — which was established in March 2019 — was designed to accelerate the development of cutting edge space capabilities for the military, and it is pursuing a new communications satellite architecture in low-Earth orbit.
Senior defense officials are in disagreement over how quickly to integrate the agency into the fledgling Space Force. It currently falls under the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.
The organization is slated to be integrated into the Space Force by October 2022. But SDA Director Derek Tournear said he wants that pushed back to 2023.
The first step of the agency’s proliferated satellite architecture in low-Earth orbit, or LEO, includes a “Tranche 0” constellation that is set to launch at the end of fiscal year 2022 and be ready for demonstration sometime in fiscal year 2023, Tournear said. Plans call for launching a new tranche every two years.
The Pentagon should wait until after the initial tranche flies to integrate the SDA into the Space Force, Tournear said during a virtual discussion hosted by the SmallSat Alliance.
“We need enough runway to be able to demonstrate that military utility,” he said. “We have to be able to demonstrate that constructive disruption first.”
The military usefulness of the satellite constellation should be evident in 2023, Tournear said. If officials wait until then to integrate SDA into the Space Force “there will be enough ... critical mass at that point and enough pull on the capabilities that it won’t be stopped,” he said. However, if the agency is folded into the Space Force before the concept is proven, the initiative could lose momentum during the bureaucratic shakeup, he warned.
But there may be pushback from the Pentagon on delaying SDA’s integration into the service.
Shawn Barnes, a member of the senior executive service in the office of the assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration, said the organization should be integrated into the Space Force no later than October 2022. Ideally, it will happen even earlier, he added.
“The Department of the Air Force would like to see that sooner rather than later, but we recognize that there are some challenges associated with that,” he said during an event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The recent departure of Michael Griffin, who had overseen the SDA as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, adds another wrinkle to the situation, said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Griffin resigned and left his post in July to pursue an opportunity in the private sector. Griffin was a major advocate for the Space Development Agency within the Defense Department.
“It certainly is not a positive sign for the SDA that its main champion is leaving the Pentagon,” Harrison said.
However, that does not necessarily mean the organization is going away.
“The SDA had already made some big progress in terms of getting initial programs going to develop proliferated LEO constellations,” he said. “That momentum is likely to carry forward and carry the agency through until it can be transferred under the Space Force.”
The rollover into the Space Force will likely be accelerated because of Griffin’s departure, Harrison said. However, the timing will also be dependent on who replaces him.
A faster integration could be detrimental for the agency, Harrison noted.
“A lot of that depends on how quickly the Space Force can reorient its acquisition workforce to be more receptive to proliferated LEO constellations and alternative space architectures in general,” he said.
For decades, many defense officials have resisted architectures that are different from what they traditionally fielded — usually small numbers of large, expensive and exquisite satellites in geosynchronous orbit, Harrison said.
“A lot depends on how quickly the Space Force can change the culture and change the acquisition mindset within its own organizations so that they don’t squash the innovation that the SDA was pushing,” he added.