Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — The idea of a Space Development Agency first entered the conversation last summer as Pentagon officials were trying to figure out how to respond to Congress’ questions about how the Defense Department planned to manage space.

It took months of legal reviews and lots of red tape to create a new agency, and “we reached the end of that yesterday,” Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin said on Wednesday during a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Tuesday signed a memo that officially creates the SDA. “It took us some time to think through it,” Griffin said.

In the months leading up to the establishment of the SDA, the plan has come under criticism, notably by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, for adding another organization in DoD that would duplicate the work that already is being done by the Air Force.

Griffin has frequently blasted the Pentagon’s traditional procurement organizations for being slow and bound to “legacy thinking.” But he rejected the idea that the SDA is out to engage in a turf war with the Air Force, arguing that the new agency will fill space technology needs that are currently not being met. “We don’t have the time, the money, the brainpower or the energy to do duplicative things,” Griffin said.

He said he could not comment on why the Air Force fought against the SDA but he also made it clear that Wilson ultimately was overruled by Shanahan. “It took months of process to get the agency created, that’s not the same as saying that everybody agreed. Everybody didn’t agree. That’s unfortunate but it’s a fact.”

The SDA will be based at the Pentagon and is projected to have about 100 people. Its first job will be to design and architect a constellation of small satellites in low-Earth orbit that will be used for communications and surveillance, what Griffin calls a “proliferated LEO sensor and communications transport layer.” The idea is to use commercially produced satellites and payloads as a foundation for future designs of military constellations that would be more resilient to disruptions or attacks than traditional, larger and more expensive military spacecraft.

That is “our first priority,” he said. “We’re looking for a broad set of capabilities.” And he noted that this is not a task that is “being pursued by the Air Force or by anybody else. It’s not a duplicative task. It’s a new thing we’re doing to meet known mission requirements.”

In the March 12 memo, Shanahan describes the SDA’s first project as a “national security space architecture that provides the persistent, resilient, global, low-latency surveillance needed to deter or, if deterrence fails, defeat adversary action.” He noted that DoD “cannot achieve these goals and we cannot match the pace our adversaries are setting if we remain bound by legacy methods and culture.”

The SDA is not intended to displace the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center that currently manages most of the military’s space programs, said Griffin. “They have a very important function with continuing to produce and oversee the legacy space architecture,” he said.  “These are things we have in space today that we surely don’t want to give up.”

The SDA, by contrast, is a “new capability with new functions,” he said. “I’m not personally trying to shake up anybody or anything. We’re trying to put in place a new and important capacity for functions we can’t perform now.”

Wilson has argued that the SDA work would overlap with projects done by the Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office. But Griffin said the SDA would take a broader defense-wide view, whereas the RCO only focuses on Air Force programs.

In a Feb. 26 memo to Griffin, Wilson said the SDA “appears to replicate existing organizations, already authorized by Congress.” She insisted that the SDA lacks a “uniquely identifiable mission that cannot be accomplished by current organizations.”

In the memo, Wilson also questioned the idea of proliferated LEO constellations as the solution to space resiliency. The Air Force and the office of the director of cost analysis and program evaluation, she wrote, are “currently conducting detailed analysis on the effectiveness of more satellites on resiliency and failure, compared to the current architecture. It is premature to conclude that a massively proliferated low-Earth orbit architecture would be more resilient in the face of deliberate attack than alternative, similar priced architectures. The proposed plan requires in-depth supporting analysis and validation by the warfighter.”

Throughout the Q&A session with reporters, Griffin was insistent that the SDA should not be seen as a threat to the Air Force. To elaborate that point, he read out loud comments published in a SpaceNews interview with retired Air Force Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, a former commander of Air Force SMC.

In the interview, Pawlikowski said the problem is not SMC but the Pentagon’s procurement regulations. “It’s been proven over and over again that if you have an organization that you burden with all these acquisition rules and regulations, whether it’s SMC or others, it’s very difficult to be able to move quickly. … If you want an organization that has the flexibility and the agility to take bigger risks on the newer concepts, then you’re probably going to get there faster if you create a separate organization that doesn’t have to fight its way through the regulations and  the culture.”

After reading that comment, Griffin said, “I can’t do better than Ellen did.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...