The U.S. Defense Department’s head of space acquisitions circulated a memo last fall calling for the Pentagon to embrace a faster, more commercial approach to building satellites.
At the top of Frank Calvelli’s “Space Acquisition Tenets” list is to pivot away from billion-dollar behemoths that take a decade to build in favor of smaller spacecraft that can be delivered in under three years.
Most space systems the U.S. military needs — for communications, space domain awareness, missile detection and tracking, navigation, weather observation and other applications — can be made faster, cheaper and more resilient by relying on larger numbers of smaller, shorter-lived satellites, said Calvelli, who is assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.
The chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force Gen. B. Chance Saltzman has championed this shift.
“We’re in a new era,” he said Feb. 22 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Launch costs are coming down. Small satellite technology is enabling us to think about larger constellations,” said Saltzman. “And larger constellations allow us to think about a launch cycle where we can refresh our on-orbit technology faster.”
Amid this push for change, Congress enacted a 2023 defense appropriations bill in late December earmarking $442 million for a wideband communications satellite that the Pentagon did not request. It was a repeat of what happened in 2018 when Congress inserted $600 million for communications satellites that were not budgeted by DoD.
The procurement arm of the Space Force, the Space Systems Command, on Feb. 7 confirmed the funding added by Congress in the 2023 budget will pay for a geosynchronous Wideband Global Satcom (WGS), a satellite that Boeing has manufactured for nearly two decades and recently redesigned with a new payload and security features.
“This was quite remarkable because nobody saw it coming,” industry consultant Mike Tierney, head of legislative affairs for the National Security Space Association, said of the WGS earmark.
He pointed out that none of the preceding defense committee markups of the 2023 spending bill included the add-on.
Lawmakers partially offset the $442 million plus-up by cutting $150 million from next-generation communications satellite programs.
A marathon, not a sprint
Congress, to be sure, has supported the Space Force’s transition to a proliferated architecture of smaller satellites led by the Space Development Agency, and the last-minute funding for WGS should not be interpreted as a rejection of that vision, Tierney said.
Calvelli’s message “is resonating,” he added, but it will take years to rebalance a space architecture dominated by large, bespoke satellites the Air Force acquired over decades. Meanwhile, “we are starting to see inflections in acquisition strategy,” he said.
Charles Beames, the executive chairman of Denver-based smallsat specialist York Space Systems and head of the SmallSat Alliance advocacy group, said lobbying by large defense contractors usually drives these types of large earmarks.
Boeing declined to comment on the 2023 budget add-on and referred all questions to the Space Systems Command.
Beames, a former principal director for space and intelligence systems at the Pentagon, said there is “always horse-trading and give-and-take” in large defense appropriations. Although DoD did not request a WGS, he said, getting this funding will help fill well-known military needs for satellite-based communications.
The “G” in WGS originally stood for gapfiller. The Air Force in 2001 awarded Boeing a contract to develop WGS as an interim solution to bridge a gap until the arrival of a new Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT).
Like the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System program that collapsed around the same time under the weight of its interagency requirements, TSAT was intended as a secure, high-capacity global communications network for the DoD, NASA and the intelligence community. Plagued by cost overruns and delays, TSAT was terminated in 2009. “That was a multibillion-dollar trainwreck,” Beames said.
By the time the Pentagon canceled TSAT, the Air Force had already launched three WGS satellites and Boeing was under contract to produce three more, including one funded by the Australian government as part of a 2007 agreement to gain access to the constellation. WGS over time assumed a central role in U.S. and allied military wideband communications and more international partners have joined the program under various agreements.
The Air Force also turned to commercial satcom services to supplement military satellites but it never came up with a WGS replacement that satisfied Congress. The WGS constellation by 2019 was up to 10 satellites and Congress inserted two more. The one funded in 2018, WGS-11, is scheduled to be delivered to the Space Force in 2024.
With regard to the latest WGS addition, said Beames, “what Congress did is not perfect, but compared to other things that go on, it doesn’t hurt my head too much.” He argued, however, that a procurement this size should have been opened to competitive bids instead of going to Boeing as a sole-source contract.
The SmallSat Alliance, which represents small satellite manufacturers and launch providers, is stepping up advocacy on Capitol Hill, “but we can’t afford the high power lobbyists,” he said. “We’re able to move the ball down the field a little bit every year with some funding for demonstrations and stuff like that.”
Beames said Calvelli in recent months has visited many smallsat manufacturers to “kick the tires and see what’s real.” He has seen the factories and how fast they can crank out satellites for a fraction of the cost of bespoke systems, he said, “and I think a lot of that is reflected in his tenets.”
Already at a tipping point
The poster child for Calvelli’s acquisition mantra is the constellation now being acquired by the Space Development Agency. SDA projects to spend several billion dollars on a proliferated mesh network in low Earth orbit that uses commercially produced small satellites to track enemy missiles and relay the data on their location to military commanders on the ground.
SDA was formed inside the Pentagon in 2019 to help accelerate the adoption of commercial space technology and was transferred to the U.S. Space Force in October. Since 2020, it has ordered hundreds of small satellites for the relay network and a missile-tracking layer, with the first batch projected to launch in late March.
The agency has benefited from significant congressional add-ons. Tierney estimated SDA got $750 million above its budget requests in 2022 and 2023 to accelerate the deployment of missile-tracking satellites.
Congress is coming around to Calvelli’s way of thinking, said Tierney. “Two or three cycles ago when the Space Development Agency was first being proposed, there was a lot of skepticism about where it fit into the broader space architecture. But that skepticism, I think, is long dead now.”
The complexity of military satellite systems calls for a nuanced approach, which is why Congress has added funds for two additional WGS satellites while also supporting SDA’s vision of small satellites, said a congressional source speaking on condition of anonymity.
Just weeks before retiring in November, former chief of space operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond warned that the transition to a small satellite architecture must be seamless “You can’t tell the world I’m going to turn off GPS, or turn off missile warning and we’ll be back to you in about 10 years with new stuff,” Raymond said.
Missile warning satellites are the largest part of the Space Force’s procurement budget, absorbing more than $4 billion in 2023. The bulk of the funding is for Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) geostationary satellites the Air Force ordered in 2018 from Lockheed Martin to provide early warning of enemy missile launches. But long-term budget projections show a gradual decline in funding for large missile-warning satellites as the Space Force ramps up the missile-tracking layer in LEO and a medium-orbit layer that is now in development.
Congress is not going to pull the plug on big-ticket programs like Next-Gen OPIR, even though lawmakers support what SDA is doing, the congressional source said. “Missile warning is a no-fail mission, and SDA really hasn’t launched anything of significance yet, or proven its capability.”
With a mission like missile warning, “you can’t have any false positives when you’re going to wake up the president to say we’re under attack. You have to be absolutely certain,” the source said. “It’s not a situation where you can say ‘this SDA stuff looks good, let’s go with it and cancel the legacy program.’”
Defense contractors diversify
The large aerospace prime contractors that for decades have dominated the military satellite market started diversifying in anticipation of DoD’s shift to smaller satellites.
In 2018, Boeing acquired Millennium Space, a smallsat builder founded in 2001 in El Segundo, California. In 2020, Raytheon absorbed Blue Canyon Technologies, a Colorado-based smallsat manufacturer founded in 2008 that drove a lot of new developments in smallsat technologies.
In 2022, Lockheed Martin made a $100 million strategic investment in Terran Orbital, a Florida-based company building satellite buses for the Space Development Agency as a Lockheed subcontractor.
Separately from its Terran Orbital investment, Lockheed Martin in recent years has rolled out a family of small, medium and large satellite buses to position itself to fill the gamut of military requirements.
“There are missions that drive you towards higher power and larger satellites, but increasingly there are definitely opportunities to go towards more distributed constellations that take advantage of smaller satellites, as we’ve seen with SDA,” said Eric Brown, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for mission strategy and advanced capabilities.
Michael Corriea, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for overhead infrared sensors, said the current missile-warning satellites the Pentagon is buying have to be large to meet the government’s requirements. The 4,500-kilogram Space Based Infrared (SBIRS) GEO-6 satellite that launched last August is equipped with roughly 500 kilograms of infrared sensors — a payload mass heavier than most smallsats at launch.
“Could the same set of requirements be put on a small platform? The answer is no,” Correia said. “But you can most certainly build missile warning satellites on a smaller platform and adjust the requirements for the architecture in terms of the number of sensors on orbit,” he said. “You could build satellites of any size, quite frankly, based on architectural parameters.”
Millennium Space CEO Jason Kim said the industry is postured for a “hybrid architecture that includes both large and small.” This is new for the Department of Defense, he noted. “Back 20-plus years ago when we were founded, small satellites were not a common architecture.”
Small satellites have become more reliable and more capable, he said, but physics sometimes demands larger platforms. “It’s all just a balance of cost, schedule, performance and risk,” Kim said.
There is significant private investment in small satellite technologies, “and what we hear from Calvelli is that he wants to leverage those investments,” he added. Buying a WGS satellite is not necessarily inconsistent with Calvelli’s plan because it is mature technology and not a new development, Kim argued. The Space Systems Command said the new WGS-12 will be “built to print,” which means Boeing will build another copy using the existing design.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.