DARPA’s new Hallmark program seeks to provide improved capabilities to rapidly plan, assess, and execute the full spectrum of U.S. military operations in space. Credit: DARPA.

WASHINGTON – The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency could award contracts worth as much as $21.5 million for industry to develop new software systems meant to improve how the Defense Department visualizes and responds to threats in space.

The contracts are the first part of a DARPA program called Hallmark, which, in the past year, has become one of the agency’s top space priorities. The agency requested $28 million for the program in its 2017 budget.

The Defense Department is already working on a similar effort for the Air Force’s primary space operations nerve center, the Joint Space Operations Center at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. That program, known as the JSpOC Mission System Increment 3, would provide a battle management system to help the Air Force prepare for threats to its satellites and bolster the Defense Department’s monitoring, planning, and tasking of events in space.

But Increment 3 is still early in development and has been mired with questions about how it will move forward. In addition, lawmakers are skeptical of the acquisition strategy. The program is further complicated by the creating of a new joint space operations center with the intelligence community known as the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, which is experimenting with similar battle management and command and control capabilities.

Regardless, Defense Department officials have stressed the need for greater space situational awareness as well as accelerated response times to help combat what they see as emerging threats to national security satellites from China and Russia.

In a solicitation released June 17, DARPA said it hoped to develop new tools the Air Force could adopt for either space operations center.

“While existing technology can provide elements of situational awareness, indications and warnings, command, control and communications, there is currently no satisfactory capability to evaluate new technologies for their impact on space command and control capabilities,” the announcement said. “The goal is a comprehensive and effective set of space command and control (C2) capability technologies that can be spiraled into the Joint Space Operations Center and/or the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center.”

The June 17 announcement is the first of two Hallmark-related solicitations DARPA plans to unveil this summer.

This initial request is for a three-phase, proof-of-concept effort that would provide the backbone for a new software system and set up a home for that system, likely in Northern Virginia. Multiple awards are possible, the announcement said.

The first phase would last 18 months, beginning with a contract award in early 2017, and include contracts worth as much as $16 million. This period would be followed by two potential options: Phase 2, which would cover 15 months and could be worth $4 million, would integrate additional command and control capabilities to a software testbed; Phase 3, which would last 12 months and carry a value of up to $1.5 million, would further the technology and fund a transition of the program to the Air Force.

The second solicitation, expected later this summer, would ask industry to develop software and specific tools to bolster the Air Force’s capabilities.

Brad Tousley, the director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said last month that ideally Hallmark will provide a real-time visualization of what’s happening in space as well as a range of actions a military officer could take to respond. This would include integrating existing data streams and combining them with new space situational awareness data.

“The agreement we have with the Air Force is to test it, feed this technical information into it and then we’ll experiment with space warfighters over a 24-36 month period,” Tousley said during the GEOINT 2016 conference in May. “At that point it transitions to the JSpOC or the JICSpOC, depending on how those two organizations shake out in the future.”

Responses to the first solicitation are due Aug. 15.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.