On National Security | How the military buys satellites may have reached a turning point
The Space Development Agency is rewriting the rules for buying satellites for the U.S. military. Its acquisitions are moving much faster than is the norm for Pentagon programs — with a goal to turn proliferated low-Earth orbit constellations from PowerPoint charts to actual hardware in orbit within two years.
The idea that DoD can save time, money and make space systems more resilient by moving to proliferated systems has been talked about for years. But many reform efforts could not overcome bureaucratic inertia. “We’ve seen this change coming slowly for more than a decade,” said Bill Gattle, president of space systems at L3Harris, one of several companies that have won contracts to build satellites for the SDA.
It was about a decade ago when the Air Force Space Command (which is now the U.S. Space Force) floated plans to “disaggregate” space — replacing huge exquisite satellites in geosynchronous orbit with swarms of smaller and cheaper low-orbiting spacecraft, or with payloads hosted on commercial satellites.
Space Force leaders now believe that satellite procurements are reaching a turning point. “It’s time to move to a 21st century approach to designing, fielding, operating and upgrading satellites,” said Gen. David Thompson, the vice chief of space operations of the Space Force.
“We’ve gotten to the point now where our space systems are incredibly capable, and they’re incredibly complex, but they are built on old platforms,” he said in October during a Defense One online event.
The existing fleet of satellites is meeting the military’s current needs, Thompson said, but the Space Force has to figure out how to take advantage of commercial technology to modernize constellations in the coming years and decades.
Thompson said a driving force for change is that U.S. constellations have to be more resilient against physical or cyberattacks.
“Looking forward, what you will see is probably larger numbers of less complex satellites built using 21st century production techniques,” Thompson said. “We’ll upgrade them in the process of a few years, rather than upgrading them on a decade by decade timeline,” he added. “We have finally, I think, started to turn the corner to go in that direction.”
Gattle suggested that the SDA procurements that are now underway — one is a Transport Layer of data relay satellites, and the other is a Tracking Layer of sensor satellites — could serve a model for future Space Force programs.
DoD will continue to buy big-ticket exquisite satellites, he said, but the SDA is providing a template for how things could be done differently.
When satellites are purchased as commodities, the industry has to rethink its investments and cost structure so companies can bid competitive prices, said Gattle. The space industry that works on traditional DoD programs, he said, has to make significant adjustments to compete for SDA contracts.
Creating new market incentives and attracting nimble suppliers are key goals for SDA, said Frank Turner, the agency’s technical director. “What we are doing is a brand-new model,” he said at a recent virtual conference organized by the Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center. “We’re literally trying to turn space into a commodity.”
But Turner acknowledged that this approach clashes with the DoD procurement culture that emphasizes technical performance and reliability.
The typical requirements imposed on military programs might not be relevant in a proliferated LEO system that uses commoditized technology, said Turner. “We’re in the process right now of starting to think through some of those things.”
SDA plans to launch new batches of satellites every two years. “I don’t think that we, as a Department of Defense, as a country, have thought through what it means to have almost a throwaway set of satellites.”
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 Oct. 19, 2020 issue.