COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The newly established U.S. Space Development Agency has been bashed by critics — most visibly the Air Force’s top civilian — as another duplicative Defense Department organization with half-baked ideas on how to field technology more quickly.
Fred Kennedy, the newly named director of the office, pushed back on those criticisms during an April 9 presentation at Space Symposium where he unveiled the ambitious satellite architecture that he plans to put into orbit in a matter of years.
SDA’s first project is a “transport layer” of a multitude of small, inexpensive low-Earth orbit satellites that will transfer data between space and ground assets.
But that’s just the beginning, Kennedy said.
“Other layers will follow on deployment timelines of two years and perhaps even less,” he said. “We wish to emulate the smartphone and computer industry’s approach to upgrades. We are not building exquisite systems intended to last a decade or more. To the extent possible, we will be buying and building commodities which we can then replace or upgrade on short order.”
Under the notional architecture put forward by Kennedy, the transport layer could be comprised of 650-some smallsats, with the first assets on orbit as early as 2022.
From there, SDA will roll out a “tracking layer” of about 200 satellites meant to provide global coverage of advanced missile threats using infrared imaging.
“We believe there’s a strong case for doing that from LEO,” or low-Earth orbit, he told reporters during a roundtable. “The sensitivities are much higher. I can build a sensor with a much smaller aperture, that is much easier to build than the things I have to put in geosynchronous orbit. I just need to make more of them.”
“Rather than wait to 2025” to get the Air Force’s next-generation missile satellites in orbit, “what I’m arguing is that we try to put up some form of capability in 2022 and show that we can do it. We may not have perfect global coverage, but we’ll have some level of coverage — at least regionally — addressing most of that threat,” he said.
Then, the office will launch a “custody layer” of about 200 satellites that use radar, electro-optical/infrared cameras and signals intelligence to sense and monitor objects on Earth — potential targets of interest, for instance, and how they may be moving or changing. It will also create a 200 satellite “deterrence layer.”
A number of “advanced maneuvering vehicles” would also be developed. Kennedy isn’t sure exactly what form it might take — whether it’s an advanced space plane like a X-37 successor or another spacecraft — but said that it will be able to move between the Earth and the moon more quickly and efficiently than an adversary and deliver effects, potentially even weapons.
Kennedy was clear that the numbers of satellites presented in the notional architecture were subject to change as SDA refines its concept over the next couple of months. He also wants to get feedback from industry through a request for information that will probably come out this summer.
“We’re taking our charter to go fast very seriously and are committed to providing a refined plan to DoD leadership by the end of this fiscal year, one that we can move out on immediately with an eye to deploying our first assets on orbit along with associated ground capability no later than 2022,” he said.
“The mesh network with the data transport layer is our No. 1 priority. Everything else is predicated on its resilient, low latency, global communications capability.”
If SDA is successful in filling the capability gaps that it is hoping to address, it could have a ripple effect on major Air Force space programs like Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared or the GPS III follow-on satellites — potentially even the cancellation or scaling back of programs.
At that point, “we need to start having a conversation on what the force mix looks like. Some things will have to stand down. Other things will have to have to stand up,” Kennedy said. “We’re not ready to have that discussion yet, but somewhere in 2025, 2026, we need to start talking about that.”
The idea that SDA could take responsibility for space procurement efforts that would normally be part of Air Force organizations like the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and Space and Missile Systems Center is worrying to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who has become a vocal detractor of the organization.
In a Feb. 28 memo obtained by Defense News, Wilson wrote that “until the Space Development Agency has a uniquely identifiable mission that cannot be accomplished by current organizations, the plan should not move forward.”
During a Tuesday speech at Space Symposium, Wilson doubled down on her criticism.
“Launching hundreds of cheap satellites into theater as a substitute for the complex architectures where we provide key capabilities to the war fighter will result in failure on America’s worst day if relied upon alone,” she said.
Asked about Wilson’s comments, Kennedy said that her statement gets to the heart of a Defense Department debate on how to balance funding for proliferated constellations of smaller satellites with the more costly technologies needed to “protect and defend” large satellites.
The approach of buying sophisticated and exquisite technologies, as well as advanced tech to defend it, can be prohibitively expensive. It’s also what U.S. adversaries expect, he said.
“If you have a SBIRS satellite in GEO, you’re not going to just write it off, you’re going to say how can I protect and defend that system,” he said. However, if one has other less-expensive proliferated satellites in LEO that can also conduct the missile warning functions that SBIRS does, “we may write that off to a certain extent.”
“I’d like to give our adversary that problem to go solve,” Kennedy added.
The SDA head also batted back the idea that his agency has the same functions as other parts of the space enterprise, and that it might add bureaucracy.
“We have a culture in the national security space community that does not easily respond to the pace of threat,” he said. “I cannot find an organization out there that responds in a timely fashion to these kinds of threats. So the thought was, ‘Let’s stand up an agency that has the appropriate authorities that can actually move at that speed, at that threat.’”
One key point is that SDA can move out on technology development without firm requirements, unlike other Defense Department programs, which begin with the yearslong process it takes to establish a validated requirement.
For instance, the notional satellite architecture proposed by SDA was not the result of the requirements process. Instead, the agency conducted a 60-day study, which was informed by the Defense Department’s August 2018 report on organizational and management structure for the national security space components.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.