Griffin confident new space agency will win over skeptics

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The SDA does not yet have the authorities and funding in place to award contracts, but companies are still being asked to submit ideas for a future space architecture.

CHANTILLY, Va. — Nearly 300 executives from defense and space companies turned up on Tuesday for the Space Development Agency’s first “Industry Day” at the Aerospace Corp. conference center next door to the National Reconnaissance Office.

“By the number of people here I’m delighted,” said Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. “It shows me that you have some faith in what we’re trying to execute here.”

Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin.

It’s been a roller coaster ride for the Space Development Agency since it was established in March by former acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan. Griffin was the SDA’s original proponent. He argued that the Pentagon needed a separate agency to work with the commercial space industry and develop a “national defense space architecture” with large constellations of low-cost satellites that would be harder for enemies to take down and cheaper to modernize than traditional military spacecraft.

Griffin told the audience that he views the SDA as a personal cause. “The development of these kinds of systems was a major motivating factor, possibly the major motivating factor, in my return to government after a much less stressful existence for 10 year after I left NASA,” he said.

It has not been smooth sailing. Griffin handpicked longtime colleague Fred Kennedy to be the first SDA director but the relationship quickly soured. Kennedy’s departure alarmed congressional committees that already were skeptical of the SDA. The agency to this day has no appropriated funds and it’s currently staffed by support contractors from Aerospace and other federally funded research and development centers.

Chris Glista, the chief of contracts at SDA, told executives they are going to have to be patient until things settle down. “We’re still ramping up,” he said. The response to the industry day was encouraging, Glista said. “We had to turn people away.”

The SDA does not yet have the authorities and funding in place to award contracts, but companies are still being asked to submit ideas for a future space architecture. A “request for information” released July 1  set an August 5 deadline for submissions. Glista cautioned that the RFI should not be viewed as a formal solicitation and that SDA would not reimburse contractors for any expenses.

“We encourage you to respond, “said Glista. “If you’re looking for an acquisition strategy, we don’t have one yet. .. We are looking for ideas.”

Griffin said the SDA will develop a space architecture that will be harder for enemies to attack. “In every wargame we play, blue [friendly force] quickly loses advantage because our space assets are targeted,” he said. “What we have today in space is reminiscent of a bunch of battleships parked at Pearl Harbor right before World War II.” In the future, “we want to confound adversaries.”

The plan is to deploy large constellations of satellites, which the SDA calls proliferated systems. “Proliferation gives us the advantage of minor degradation for each successful kill by any adversary,” said Griffin. That means it would likely become more expensive for enemies to take down large numbers of satellites than it would be for DoD to replace them.

Griffin pushed back on the criticism that the SDA is stepping on the toes of the Air Force and other organizations that develop space technologies. “The SDA is not the arbiter and owner of all things space for the national security community,” he said. “The intelligence community has plans of its own for proliferated systems, each service has its own needs.” The SDA will try to fill gaps such as the current lack of a global communications network. “In the end, if we can just talk to one another with a common comms network protocol,” that would fill a real need, he said. “Nothing can happen without that.”

Several industry executives at the event told SpaceNews that despite a lack of funds and specific contracting opportunities, they want to be part of the conversation with SDA and are willing to submit ideas for free if that is what it takes to have a chance to win real contracts in the future.

The SDA acting director Derek Tournear said that contractors who miss the August 5 deadline for submissions can still send in ideas. “It’s not a solicitation,” he said. “We’ll take information from you whenever you can provide it.”

Tournear and other SDA officials who briefed contractors on Tuesday frequently used the phrase “the trade space is wide open” to make the point that the agency does not have its mind made up on many issues.

“We need you to help us craft this architecture,” said Tournear. “We need you to help us know the state of the possible, prevent us from ‘doing stupid.’”

The SDA has laid out concepts for different types of proliferated constellations but those are not meant to influence contractors’ proposals. “Please don’t regurgitate them back to us in RFI responses,” said Tournear. “We’re not wed to any of our concepts, give us what you really think are the solutions to achieve the goals.”

The agency wants to start deploying new systems by fiscal year 2022, he said. To speed up the procurement of satellites, sensors and ground control systems, the SDA will bypass the traditional “requirements” process and will use wargames and simulations to show DoD the potential return on investments. “Our goal is rapid transition to capability, not tech development,” said Tournear. “We will evaluate our architecture decisions through wargaming, Monte Carlo simulations and analytics.”

The SDA has the “responsibility and also the freedom to work across the department, and focus on a clean sheet for the future architecture,” said Tournear. “We will not develop an architecture to answer a set of detailed, vetted requirements [by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council] and issue RFPs [requests for proposals] against those requirements.”

Tournear cautioned that the SDA “does not want to build every satellite needed for the future national defense space architecture … SDA will build when needed but we will not duplicate.”

Space architecture

The space architecture will have multiple layers, which collectively would give military forces powerful capabilities. The immediate priority is the “transport layer,” a mesh network with data rates at a minimum of 10 megabits per second. The head of the project, Timothy Boudreaux, said the transport layer will be the backbone of the architecture. He said the SDA, unlike commercial broadband companies, is not convinced this layer should be in low Earth orbit. “During our summer study, we realized it could be proliferated LEO or proliferated MEO [medium Earth orbit],” he said. “All options are open.”

Another layer will be for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) to supplement GPS. A “tracking” layer will detect and monitor missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles, and a “custody” layer will provide persistent surveillance of targets. A “deterrence” layer will provide deep space surveillance all the way to cislunar space. The brain of the system will be a “battle management” layer powered by artificial intelligence. The SDA plans to create a “support cell” to deal with ground control systems and launch services.

Both Griffin and Tournear received several questions from the audience about SDA’s political standing. DoD officials, including the newly sworn defense secretary Mark Esper, have expressed support for the SDA. But Capitol Hill remains divided over the value of the agency.

“On Capitol Hill there are some people that support the SDA,” said Tournear. “Others we are still educating on how we fit in.”

Griffin said one of the questions that frequently get asked on Capitol Hill is on the perceived overlap between the SDA’s tracking layer for missile defense and the Missile Defense Agency’s hypersonic tracking space sensor layer. Griffin said eventually they should become one program. “That of course requires going down the road, having congressional appropriations,” he said. “We have to flesh out the MDA architecture, a lot of work will be needed within government to align these entities.”