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HOT TOPICS: House Armed Services set for NDAA markup • Space traffic management policy debate • Air Force picks contractors for SBIRS follow-on

HOUSE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN MAC THORNBERRY rolled out his mark of the FY-19 National Defense Authorization Act. Subcommittee provisions will be reviewed Wednesday during the full committee markup.

SURPRISE SSA PROVISION The bill terminates the authority of the Defense Department to provide space situational awareness data to commercial and foreign entities on Jan. 1, 2024, requires DoD to hire a federally funded think tank to assess which department should assume these authorities, and directs DoD to develop a plan to ensure that one or more departments may provide SSA services to foreign governments.

The HASC provision comes out just as the administration prepares to transition space traffic management from DoD to the Commerce Department. Doug Loverro, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said this language “suggests that Congress is looking for a smooth transition without a break in service.”

SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS The bill requires the secretary of defense to submit a report to congressional defense committees by Dec. 31 on how protected satellite communications programs meet the requirements for resilience, mission assurance, and nuclear command, control, and communication missions.

WIDEBAND COMMUNICATIONS The chairman’s mark mentions the appropriated funds for two additional WGS satellites and notes that growing demand for SATCOM capacity could mean more business for commercial providers.

The legislative language is a reminder of the continuing internal tension between DoD’s interest in capturing the innovation of the commercial satcom industry but also making sure government-owned satellites continue to be a major part of the mix. The satcom industry is enthused by new efforts to prototype a joint commercial-military network that would include all major satellite operators providing seamless connectivity.

STRATEGIC SATCOM Reliable and completely secure satellite communications was brought up recently as a major concern in U.S. efforts to modernize the nuclear triad. Everyone talks about the vehicles and the weapons, and it’s easy to forget other vital components of nuclear modernization, such as the early warning network, and the communications, command and control systems, said Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. All of that is entirely dependent on space, he said. “The triad also means space capability.” The classified communications network that keeps the president connected to military forces during a nuclear event — known as NC3 for nuclear command, control and communications — has not “historically been put in the triad but is vital for our defense,” said Weinstein.

MISSILE WARNING SATELLITES The Air Force on Friday announced it will award sole-source contracts to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for the next-generation overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) program. Lockheed Martin will develop the geosynchronous orbit satellites and Northrop Grumman will work on the polar system.

The GEO contract will have Lockheed Martin Space Systems “define requirements, create the initial design and identify and procure flight hardware for a satellite to operate in geosynchronous orbit.” The second contract will be given to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems to define polar system requirements. Lockheed also will be responsible to conduct a payload competition.

The next-generation OPIR will succeed the current Space Based Infrared System. The Air Force wants improved missile warning capabilities that are more survivable against emerging threats. The plan is to launch a new system by 2023.

The Air Force’s decision to sole-source the next-generation OPIR further solidifies Lockheed Martin’s dominance. Northrop Grumman provides the SBIRS payloads and is Lockheed’s primary subcontractor. Giving Northrop Grumman a share of the satellites also strengthens the company’s foothold in the program even if there is a future payload competition

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Remote Sensing Systems Directorate said opening up the program to new entrants was not a realistic option given the urgency of the program. “Based on market research, an award to any other source would result in an acceptable delay in fulfilling the Air Force’s critical and urgent requirements.”

NGA SIGNS NEW AGREEMENT WITH PLANET The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency last month signed a five-year R&D agreement with commercial imagery provider Planet to explore and potentially improve the speed at which the agency can extract vital information and analytics from the company’s imagery. NGA is seeking faster change detection, such as when it’s monitoring objects across entire countries. NGA purchased a $14 million subscription for Planet imagery in July 2017, following an introductory contract signed in 2016. The agreement will help to “explore the utility of commercial geospatial analytics,” said Robbie Schingler, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Planet.

NGA is now in the process of turning over the management of commercial imagery procurement to the National Reconnaissance Office. The House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee asked the directors of both agencies to brief defense and intelligence committees on the details by Aug. 1. The legislative proposal calls for an “open and fair competitive acquisition process to leverage industry capabilities.”

Whether it’s NGA or NRO, there are still questions on how government agencies should buy remote-sensing data given the growing population of providers and diversity of products. “It’s a new challenge understanding how to asses those capabilities,” said Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, an interagency panel chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.


ANALYTICS ABOARD SATELLITES One of the next big things in geospatial intelligence is tiny black boxes aboard satellites that ingest massive amounts of data in space and instantly analyze it. No downloading necessary. Geospatial data manipulation and analysis in real time is the holy grail in the military intelligence business. “We are trying to help commanders ‘see through the fog of data’ in situations when they have to make decisions very quickly,” said Melanie Stricklan, chief technology officer and co-founder of Slingshot Aerospace.

PENTAGON RAMPING UP AI The military worries that it is falling behind in the application of artificial intelligence while China continues to invest billions of dollars. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told lawmakers that the Pentagon plans to consolidate many disjointed AI projects from across the military into a central program office. The reorganization will be led by Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin.

AIR FORCE SPACE FENCE Lockheed Martin plans to complete integration of the Air Force Space Fence on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in June and begin tracking objects, at least in a testing mode. Full integration and testing is scheduled to begin in July as the company confirms the S-band radar array meets all contractual requirements.

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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...