WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency is gearing up for its next procurement of satellites for a military communications network known as the Transport Layer Tranche 2.

SDA, an agency under the U.S. Space Force, plans to acquire 20 satellites carrying a new type of payload to transmit targeting information. SDA documents describe the payload, dubbed Warlock, as a communications node “specifically designed to close future kill chains.” 

Unlike other payloads acquired by SDA, which are commercially available, Warlock will have to be developed “for space systems to provide fire control solutions.”

The description suggests the Gamma satellite program is pursuing advanced data-relay technologies to reduce sensor-to-shooter timelines, or the crucial flow of information in modern military operations, which requires real-time intelligence and rapid decision-making. 

The new procurement is called Transport Layer Tranche 2 Gamma. The agency on Jan. 10 announced it is holding a classified briefing for contractors next month in Chantilly, Virginia, to discuss details of the program. 

According to a draft solicitation, SDA intends to select one vendor to supply all 20 Tranche 2 Gamma satellites. A final request for proposals is expected to be released this spring. 

Proliferated tactical network

The agency is building a large mesh network of military satellites in low Earth orbit known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. The Transport Layer will serve as a tactical network to move data to users around the world. 

SDA has already ordered 190 satellites for the portion of the architecture known as the Transport Layer Tranche 2 — 100 “Alpha” satellites to be manufactured by Northrop Grumman and York Space Systems, and 90 “Beta” satellites to be produced by Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Rocket Lab USA. 

The agency said all Transport Layer satellites will have at least three optical laser links, Ka-band communications relays and other networking payloads. But only the 20 Gamma satellites will have four optical terminals and the Warlock payload.

SDA said it’s buying just 20 satellites carrying the Warlock payload to “demonstrate an operational capability for proliferation in future tranches.”

The Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture is a web of hundreds of small satellites in low Earth orbit that promises secure, high-bandwidth communications for warfighters on the ground, transforming how they share information and coordinate strikes.

The payloads envisioned for the Gamma satellites point to a future where the U.S. military relies increasingly on space-based sensors rather than aircraft to identify and track targets in contested battle spaces. In scenarios where rival anti-aircraft threats inhibit the deployment of manned and unmanned aerial intelligence platforms, satellites would provide persistent overhead surveillance even in denied environments. 

By networking space-based sensors through laser cross-links between the satellites, SDA plans to overcome traditional limitations getting data to where it needs to go, agency leaders have said. Technologies like Warlock would enable rapid transmission and handoff so military commanders on the ground can react quickly to emerging situations and adjust targeting plans as needed.

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...