JUST IN: Space Development Agency Preparing for Critical Launches

By Sean Carberry
Director of the Space Development Agency Derek Tournear

Defense Dept. photo

By the end of the year, the Space Development Agency will complete two important and very different missions: transitioning to the Space Force and launching its first “Tranche 0” satellites.

Derek Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency, said at a Washington Space Business Roundtable that the Oct. 1 transition is happening two years earlier than he predicted when the acquisition agency launched in 2019 within the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.  Originally skeptical and in favor of delaying, Tournear has embraced the move.  

“What I contended was we really needed to wait until 2025, after Tranche 1, at which point then we would have too much momentum that we couldn’t be killed,” he said.

However, the early transition is possible because the agency has been a successful disruptor in fielding space capabilities, he said.

The agency approaches its mission of acquiring and deploying space technology — none of which it develops, owns or launches itself — according to two pillars. The first is promoting a proliferated low-Earth orbit architecture to space technology. The idea was to move away from expensive, exquisite satellites to cheaper, distributed ones and to leverage commercial technology in the process. The SDA approach has caught on, he said.

“Just look at what Space Systems Command is doing, and in fact, look at the entire Space Force transition from the exquisite assets doing missile warning,” he said. “Now they've shifted over to this new architecture that's doing a proliferated missile warning, missile tracking system.”

The second pillar is “spiral development,” or launching capabilities in “tranches,” he said. Instead of waiting for fully mature systems and using a traditional procurement approach, SDA is procuring and launching in 24-month tranches, he said.

That approach gets incremental capabilities in orbit more quickly and moves at the speed of commercial development, he said. It allows more commercial companies to participate because they can compete for a piece of the action every two years.

“The whole goal for SDA is not just to get these capabilities out there for the warfighter, but the only way we're able to do that is if we actually treat these space capabilities as a market-based, commoditized item that we can expect several different players in the industry to provide,” he said.

And just like the adoption of the proliferated approach, the Space Force is moving to a spiral approach, he said.

“If you look at what the Space Force has [shifted] to, they have embraced this this disruption,” he said.

Key to making the transition has been the support of leaders and commanders in the Air and Space Forces, he said.

One has been Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, he said.

“Over these last several months he has pushed to make sure that he has delegated the acquisition authorities to us that we need,” he said.

Calvelli has pushed “to make sure that we get all of the nine acquisition authorities that we have today as a defense agency that we will continue to have after we become what's called a ‘direct reporting unit’ underneath the Space Force.”

And Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has been supportive as well. “He's the one that endorsed this entire shift to this proliferated construct, so he's behind us.”

While SDA will live under Calvelli in the acquisitions chain, SDA will fall underneath Chief of Space Operations Gen. John "Jay" Raymond and Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson, Tournear said.

“Gen. Thompson is giving us the assurance that he will do everything in his power to make sure that we are unencumbered to continue to” focus on speed, delivery and agility, he said.

SDA received its first appropriation in February 2020 and nine months later delivered its first two satellites for launch, Tournear noted. In 2021, SDA partnered with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to launch six satellites.

“In 2022, we've been pushing forward going hard and fast on our Tranche 0 deliveries, and while we were building that, we had our Tranche 1 team stand up,” he said.

The original Tranche 0 launch was scheduled for September 2022, but software and hardware delays resulting from supply chain disruptions and a vendor protest pushed the launch to mid-December, he said. A second launch of Tranche 0 capabilities is scheduled for March 2023.

The critical deadline is to get the Tranche 0 satellites up and functional by next summer for the Air Force-led Northern Edge exercise in Alaska, where the SDA will demonstrate capstone capabilities, he said.

“Capstone mission one is to demonstrate that … we can detect and track a hypersonic glide vehicle and pass those data to our transport satellites, pass them down to the ground, use that to then calculate a fire control solution and send that back up to the transport layer where it could go down via Link 16 directly to a shooter,” he said.

Capstone two will take data from sensor systems, send the targeting information up to the transport layer and then back down “via Link 16 anywhere in the globe wherever we have a test network set up.”

The point of that mission is to demonstrate that sensor-to-shooter is no longer limited by line-of-sight. “We'll now turn that into a global targeting system,” he said.

That will make a profound difference in warfare, he continued. It will allow for hundreds of targets to be prosecuted per day across the globe.

“That is impossible over existing tactical data links, you need something that ties all of that together,” he said. “The transport layer that I just described is the [joint all-domain command and control] vision, and that is what is enabled by the SDA transport layer."

“So, that's what we're building,” he continued. “That's what will be demonstrated in the summer of 2023. We're all on track for that."


Topics: Space

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