lllustration credit: Space Development Agency

There was a lot to parse from the recent news that the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency is preparing to buy 150 satellites from multiple providers.

Not only is the large number of satellites unprecedented for a military space program but also the fact that SDA is not selecting one prime contractor to build the whole constellation.

This approach is a striking departure from the way the Pentagon has done business for decades, and the change is long overdue, said veteran space entrepreneur Jim Cantrell.

SDA’s procurement of satellites is a sign that the Pentagon is starting to “adopt commercial practices and solutions,” Cantrell commented on a podcast hosted by space journalist Brendan Byrne.

Defense officials frequently have hailed the innovation and business practices of commercial space companies and their use of mass-produced small satellites. But investments have not matched the rhetoric as the military predominantly has bought bespoke satellites from a few traditional prime contractors.

SDA is now shaking things up. The agency has been around for only two years and remains relatively unknown. But it began to draw attention from across the space industry last fall when it selected both established and nontraditional companies — Lockheed Martin, York Space, L3Harris and SpaceX — to collectively supply 28 satellites that will form the foundation of SDA’s much larger constellation.

New suppliers likely will be added to the mix when SDA orders the next batch of as many as 150 satellites that will form a space communications layer in low Earth orbit, a high-bandwidth network modeled after commercial systems but with unique capabilities for national security.

Cantrell, who now runs a startup called Phantom Space, said he was surprised by SDA’s selection of satellite providers. “Prior to this, you would never have expected primarily commercial companies to be providing national defense systems,” he said.

Most of the Pentagon’s satellites over the past several decades were developed and produced either by Lockheed Martin, Boeing or Northrop Grumman, and each cost hundreds of millions of dollars. SDA intends to buy smaller commodity satellites off commercial lines.

“In the old days it was a lot of single-unit manufacturing spread over a lot of buildings,” Cantrell noted. DoD until now has been a slow adopter of commercial space practices, he said, and SDA looks to be moving things in a much different direction.

In addition to putting up a government-owned communications layer in space, SDA plans to team up with commercial broadband companies so additional capacity can be added to the military’s network. SDA, for example, would tap into commercial data pipes to move data around the world and downlink it to military users on the ground. Government and commercial satellites would pass data via optical links.

Interoperability with commercial systems is a significant move by SDA because DoD networks today don’t have that ability.

Frank Turner, technical director of SDA, said the agency is talking to Telesat — a Canadian satellite operator that is building a low-flying space broadband network — on how to “actually engage with that constellation and make it part of the ongoing tranches for SDA.”

Speaking on a webinar hosted by the Air Force technology accelerator AFWERX, Turner said he has been briefing military leaders. What he heard from them was that they have huge needs for connectivity and that the SDA transport layer can’t come soon enough.

“There is a tremendous amount of ‘aha’ moments that seem to be happening across the Defense Department as warfighters and other organizations realize that DoD is about to launch hundreds of satellites and build out a proliferated architecture,” said Turner.

“They will be able to do things in space that have never been done before because we just didn’t have the assets,” he said.

SDA was the brainchild of former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering Mike Griffin, a longtime space leader who also served as NASA administrator. When the agency stood up in March 2019, Griffin said it would be a disruptor that would challenge the traditional DoD procurement culture centered around exquisite and expensive satellites.

Griffin’s prediction appears to be bearing out.

Sandra Erwin

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the March 15, 2021 issue.

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...