The U.S. Space Force is just beginning to organize as a new branch of the armed forces and its leaders face a daunting to-do list. High on that list is figuring out the management of space acquisitions.
Congress in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act created a new position of assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration to oversee Space Force procurements. But Congress is leaving it up to Air Force and Space Force leaders to come up with a plan for how this assistant secretary will create a cohesive enterprise that brings together existing organizations — notably the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and the Space Development Agency.
Any type of acquisition reshuffle at DoD can get messy really fast. This one will be no exception, especially because the Space Development Agency (SDA) currently operates independently from the Space Force. Whereas SMC and Space RCO already are under the Space Force, SDA is a Pentagon agency that reports to the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.
Congress said SDA must move to the Space Force by 2022 — but left it up to DoD and the services to work out the details.
Between now and whenever it joins the Space Force, SDA will move forward with programs that were planned before the space service was stood up. It will build large constellations of networked satellites in low Earth orbit to detect missiles and track enemy targets. The Pentagon requested nearly $340 million for SDA operations and technology development in 2021. According to the agency’s long-term projections, it will seek as much as $6 billion over the next five years to ramp up satellite procurements and launch them into orbit.
Former SDA director Fred Kennedy said the agency is in a tough spot despite the support it gets from DoD. In remarks Acquisition in state of confusion earlier this month at the SmallSat Symposium in California, he reminded the audience that SDA was created to accelerate innovation and was given authority to circumvent the traditional acquisition process. If SDA is merged with the Space Force bureaucracy, Kennedy said, the agency’s original goal of disrupting military space is unlikely to be achieved. He called the congressional mandate to consolidate SDA under the Space Force the equivalent of “giving SpaceX to Lockheed.”
One of the benefits of having a Space Force is greater advocacy for funding than there would be if the Air Force was left in charge of space, Kennedy said. The problem is that there is still “rampant confusion regarding what we are going to buy and how we are going to buy it.”
Another looming issue for SDA is how it will work with the Missile Defense Agency, which also reports to the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.
SDA’s planned constellation of missile-tracking satellites — also known as space sensor layer — is being designed to detect hypersonic glide vehicles, an emerging threat DoD says is not detectable by the current U.S. missile defense shield. But Congress last year said it did not want SDA to lead that effort and gave MDA $108 million to start the space sensor layer.
In the 2021 budget proposal, the Pentagon is moving the space sensor layer funding to SDA. But it’s an open question whether Congress will go along this time, or move the money right back to MDA.
Tom Karako, missile defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the back and forth with the space sensor layer just adds to the uncertainty about what exactly SDA will be doing.
“This is the administration’s second attempt to move space sensors to SDA,” he said. Congress, however, has been insistent that hypersonic missile defense is more closely aligned with MDA’s expertise tracking ballistic missiles.
SDA’s current director, Derek Tournear, was asked at the SmallSat Symposium how the agency intends to work with MDA and with the Space Force.
Tournear said MDA is a partner, not a rival, when it comes to the space sensor layer. With regard to the Space Force, he said SMC is focused on current programs and customers and not on disruptive technology. “That’s where SDA comes in,” said Tournear. “All organizations serve a unique function … We work really closely together.”
Air Force and Space Force officials said discussions are ongoing in the Pentagon on the way forward for SDA. They will provide answers to Congress in a report due March 31.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Feb. 24, 2020 issue.