Exclusive interview with the Space Development Agency’s Fred Kennedy: “How we do things in space has to change”

by

COLORADO SPRINGS — The Space Development Agency is only a month old and its staff has yet to be hired, but the SDA already has a bold agenda. It plans to change how the military develops and acquires space systems, the agency’s director Fred Kennedy told SpaceNews in his first media interview since taking the job.

SDA will do business in a way that is radically different from the way the military currently develops and acquires space systems, Kennedy said. “I wanted to call it the Space Disruption Agency,” he quipped in an April 8 interview.

Disruption, in Kennedy’s view, is overdue. While DoD officials are fond of pointing out that “space is no longer a sanctuary,” for many milspace programs it’s still business as usual.

“Some of us may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” he said. “How we do things in space has to change.”

To prod the Defense Department in that direction, Kennedy is drafting an architecture that leverages commercial capabilities coming online to churn out the hundreds and thousands of satellites venture-backed companies like OneWeb and SpaceX need for the broadband megaconstellations they’re beginning to deploy in low Earth orbit (LEO).

While the current wave of LEO constellations are mostly focused on internet connectivity and remote sensing, Kennedy sees applicability across the gamut of DoD mission areas. “The first thing I’m going to do is refine my architecture by the end of this fiscal year,” he said. “I have an architecture in mind and it’s comprehensive. It’s not just one mission area. It’s the whole thing. How do you do a next-generation space architecture?”

SDA wants to identify commercial vendors building thousands or hundreds of satellites and figure out a contracting mechanism for DoD to buy a couple of hundred off the assembly line. “Then, I want to craft my capabilities on those satellites and fly them so they can work with those networks,” Kennedy explained. “I’ll take those satellites. I’ll put payloads on them. I’ll fly them. And I hope to tunnel through their networks to get data to the tactical edge, to soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines. That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s the idea. And I think I can do that.”

Unlike traditional DoD satellite programs that cost billions of dollars and take decades to develop, the SDA architecture will be low cost and will accelerate the development of capabilities, Kennedy said. “We have an incredible amount of commercial investment just pouring in,” he noted. “A couple of years ago, I would’ve told you I was not confident that was going to continue, that it was a fad.”

But that is no longer the case. “People are excited,” Kennedy said. “Venture capitalists are excited. I think the commercial sector is going to go push hard. They’re going to build small satellites on production lines. I think you’re going to see a Henry Ford for small satellites emerge in the next two to five years. I don’t know which one is going to be that Henry Ford, but I believe that’s what’s going to happen.”

As soon as companies start putting up hundreds or thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit, the stage will be set for DoD to rethink how it develops systems, Kennedy said. “Until now, everything has been pushing us towards ‘more expensive, more review, take your time, it’s got to work,’” he said. “But if I can build spacecraft for a million dollars or less, if I can pull them off the production lines and use them, I can now afford to lose things. I’m not scared anymore. I can put up several hundred satellites and know that maybe 75 percent of them will work and that would be just fine.

“That is not the exquisite mindset. That’s the commodity mindset. I put it up, I see if it works and then I try something again. That encourages innovation. That’s happening on the commercial side and is not happening on the national security side. I need to ride that wave. This is the time to go do it with the massive amounts of money pouring in. This is the time to stand up something like an SDA to take advantage of that synergy with the commercial sector.”

SDA’s approach applies to more than just satellites, Kennedy said. “If I can buy payloads, if I can buy ground command and control software, hardware, user equipment, if we could get user terminals from the commercial side, then I can maybe do minimal ruggedization and put [it] on ships, planes, Humvees, you name it. That’s big,” Kennedy said.

In DoD, every program builds its own terminals. “I think we have 130 or 140 different kinds of wideband communications terminals alone. If we could just wipe the slate clean and commercially procure all of that into DoD, that would be huge,” he said.

The U.S. will advance in space, “when we figure out how to be agile and responsive,” Kennedy said. “We have to anticipate threats and we’re not going to be able to do that by building exquisite, expensive systems that take a decade or two.”

Military space acquisitions culture emphasizes “hyper reliability and ultimate performance at the expense of everything else,” he said. “So it takes $20 billion and 20 years to finish a constellation … The overarching culture is one of mission assurance, making sure it works. Don’t launch until it’s ready. Spend whatever it takes.”

The SDA will have special authorities to “go off and procure,” said Kennedy. “I am not bound by the requirements or by the JCIDS system. I’m not bound by the DoD 5000,” he said. All DoD procurements must comply with the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System. DoD 5000 is the massive compendium of regulations governing all DoD acquisitions.

The motto of the new agency is to move “ever faster, and we’re going to make that happen,” said Kennedy. “So the minute I get done with the architecture, I start procuring that architecture.” Critics, he said, will probably say that approach “seems a little crazy” and that more rigorous analysis is needed. Kennedy is ready for it.

SDA wants to “put up capability on a timeline that is threat driven, not requirements driven,” Kennedy said. ‘I don’t want to be told that I have to meet a certain threshold requirement. I want you to tell me what the threat is and let our team go and address that threat before the requirements are even validated.”

SDA not a threat to SMC

Since plans for the SDA were first announced, questions surfaced about what that might mean for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center that oversees most DoD space acquisitions.

Kennedy said some of those are “fair questions” but it’s premature to try to predict whether the SDA could replace SMC. “I think that’s a discussion for 2030 or 2040, not for today,” Kennedy insisted. “We’re certainly not trying to steal anybody’s jobs. What we’re trying to do is sort of graduate to the next level of what’s needed so we can actually build the next generation space architecture.”

SDA will work with the current “community of providers” including SMC, as well as the Army’s and Navy’s space procurement offices. Their programs are not at risk today. At some point, however, “we’ll have a discussion about whether this system continues or whether we graduate to something new … Maybe in the next five to seven years if we put up better and better capability, we should have that discussion. If it’s less expensive, if we get better capability out the door quicker, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that. So I think it’s … a debate to have, but we don’t have the data yet. I think it’s premature to essentially declare victory before we’ve even started.”

Kennedy said it is conceivable that SDA could come up with LEO-based alternatives to traditional constellations in higher orbits.

SDA will test new capabilities in incremental “tranches,” Kennedy said. Could SDA figure out alternatives to GPS or to current missile warning satellites? Possibly in five or 10 years, “we will have to have a conversation about what the architecture should look like. And maybe that does mean that you start standing down legacy [systems],” Kennedy said. “But I don’t think that’s a conversation that’s easily had yet because I think we need to get our first tranche of capability up.”

 

Space Sensor Layer

An early test will be an effort to develop a layer of sensors in LEO to detect and track hypersonic weapons. It’s likely that one of the first capabilities that the SDA will pursue will include a “tracking layer that will go after hypersonic weapons because the current legacy systems don’t detect them very well and they certainly don’t do it in real time.”

Defenses against hypersonic weapons are an urgent need, he said. “We believe that a proliferated LEO layer is the right way to go about it. When we’re much closer to the threat, sensitivities will be higher.”

A large constellation would provide global coverage, he said. “So we think we are in a place to go do that. … The question is, can we build the payload at cadence? The bus builders can provide me with 200 vehicles, but will the payload builders be able to provide me with 200 infrared cameras? We’ll have to see. It’s certainly not in their DNA to go do that.”

But this is the type of rapid and responsive production that SDA is asking companies to do. “So we’ll see if it’s possible.”

If the SDA successfully develops an architecture and proves out new capabilities, the next challenge will be to turn them into operational systems that get funded by the military services.

“That will be the trick,” said Kennedy. The thinking now is that if the Space Force is stood up, it will help move SDA programs forward. “In the absence of a Space Force we would have to discuss exactly what it means to operationalize that capability. But the truth is, most of it will be commercially derived.”

Staffing SDA

Kennedy envisions SDA will have about 112 government civilian and military staff, and a comparable number of support contractors. This fiscal year, it will only hire about 20 people. “I’m looking for technically sophisticated space folks.”

Kennedy compared recruiting people for the SDA to the task faced by Adm. Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy who in the 1950s directed the development of naval nuclear propulsion.

“He was looking for very sharp engineers who could do their job, who understood they had to do, technically sophisticated and it could just go off and run,” he said. “That’s what I need here. I need people who understand the business. I need people who know how to build buses and payloads and components who’ve been through assembly integration and test, who know what it takes to go out and build. And frankly, I need help from industry, especially the new space industry because I’m trying to figure out how I can bring the flavor of mass production, commoditization productization into our story. And so I can’t necessarily rely just on legacy. I need the new thought processes to come in.”

SDA needs a mix of talent, Kennedy said. “I’m open to anybody who wants to play, but they’ve got to bring their ‘A game’ and they’ve got to really know space.”

To be successful, SDA will have to stay small, Kennedy said. “I really believe that to be effective it has to be a small disruptive activity. Beyond that, you start building subcultures and pretty soon everything gets out of control.”