Space Development Agency lays out five-year plan in $11 billion proposed budget
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency in a draft budget proposal seeks more than $11 billion over five years to plan, design and deploy large constellations of satellites for military use.
The bulk of the funding is to build a 250-satellite or larger communications network that would support a missile defense constellation and other capabilities provided by satellites in low orbits. The budget proposal also explains how SDA would coordinate space projects across the U.S. military, preempting criticism that the agency intends to seize space programs from the Air Force and other organizations.
Bloomberg on Friday first reported on the SDA’s budget request for fiscal years 2021 through 2025. SpaceNews independently obtained a copy of the draft proposal. Sources familiar with the document pointed out that the numbers are likely to change before the Trump administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2021 is submitted to Congress in February.
SDA splits its five-year budget into two main buckets: $582 million in “baseline” funding for studies and roadmaps, and $10.6 billion for research, development, prototyping, testing and deployment of satellite constellations that SDA calls “layers.” The bulk of the funds is for a mesh network called transport layer of more than 250 satellites that would provide global communications services to the U.S. military.
According to the draft, most of the funding would come in 2024 and 2025: $259 million in fiscal year 2021, $1.08 billion in 2022, $1.92 billion in 2023, $3.67 billion in 2024 and $3.68 billion in 2025.
SDA was created in March and placed under the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, a forceful advocate who argued that a separate agency was needed to help bring lower cost commercial space technology into military systems.
The Pentagon in its 2020 budget requested nearly $150 million to get SDA off the ground: $44.7 million for personnel, $20 million for space research and development and $85 million for space technology prototyping. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the request but House appropriators were less supportive and voiced concerns that SDA will duplicate existing Air Force programs. The House Appropriations Committee cut the personnel funding request to $26.8 million, and the prototyping technology request to $35 million although it fully funded the $20 million request for R&D. SDA still doesn’t know how much money it will receive in 2020 as Congress has yet to pass a full-year budget and the federal government is operating under a temporary funding measure until Nov. 21.
Before it starts building constellations, SDA will design what it calls the National Defense Space Architecture. This will be a “single, coherent proliferated space architecture with seven layers,” the budget request says. “The NDSA will unify and integrate next generation capabilities across DoD and industry.” Once the architecture is defined, the SDA will start developing and deploying satellites and payloads in two-year cycles, and will use commercially available technology as much as possible.
The $582 million five-year baseline funding is to develop roadmaps for current space programs across DoD to integrate into the SDA architecture. The funds also will pay for studies and sensor prototypes for the missile defense tracking layer. It will also fund studies on space-based interceptors for missile defense, and studies on space based discrimination.
SDA explains that the additional $10.6 billion is to “deliver unmet priorities needed to prevent adversaries from gaining military advantage over the United States.” Without those resources, SDA would be “unable to fill acknowledged gaps in advanced missile detection, unable to ensure enterprise capabilities are integrated into a layered architecture, and unable to influence dual use commercial space technology.”
Acting SDA Director Derek Tournear told SpaceNews in an interview last month that the agency’s main goals are to design the architecture, develop and field the transport layer and work with the Missile Defense Agency to expedite the deployment of a tracking layer that would fill gaps in the nation’s current missile defense sensor network. Those priorities are manifested in the budget proposal.
Speaking to space industry executives at a conference in July, Griffin said SDA would not be the “arbiter and owner of all things space for the national security community.” He insisted that SDA will seek to provide capabilities that currently do not exist such as a low-latency global communications network. “If we can just talk to one another with a common communications network protocol, that would fill a real need,” said Griffin.
The Air Force initially fought back against SDA, arguing that it would duplicate existing projects and add unneeded bureaucracy. But the service now supports the agency. Maj. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of space programs at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told SpaceNews in July she does not see the SDA in competition with the Air Force. “I absolutely see room for a space development type of agency in all the architecture work that we’re dealing with,” she said. “There’s room for all of us in the future of space acquisition.”
To begin the transport layer SDA is requesting $16 million in 2021 and $3.6 billion over the next five years. It would start with about 20 satellites in 2022 and grow to more than 250 by 2025. The satellites would beam communications signals to weapons systems on the ground, at sea and in the air. The transport layer is the most critical, SDA says, because it provides essential connectivity — so when the missile defense tracking layer, for example, identifies a threat, it can send the location instantly to MDA’s command center.
For the tracking layer, SDA wants $39 million in 2021 and $1.8 billion over five years. The draft budget explains how SDA and MDA would share responsibilities. SDA would integrate MDA’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) system into the national defense space architecture. The tracking layer will be designed, like HBTSS, to detect and track hypersonic weapons that fly faster than the speed of sound and maneuver in flight. But SDA would add new capabilities like tracking ballistic missiles with dim upper stages. The tracking layer would augment the Air Force’s Next Generation Overhead Infrared missile warning constellation that is now in development. The goal is to have working satellites by 2024.
The third constellation is a custody layer to track targets on the ground. SDA requests $18 million in 2021 and $232 million over five years. The agency would de-conflict overlapping projects funded by the Army, Air Force, Navy and National Reconnaissance Office. SDA would coordinate the deployment of more than 200 satellites carrying a mix of sensors. The custody layer would be integrated with the transport layer so the users of the custody layer can send target location data directly to weapons systems in real time.
SDA wants $10 million in 2021 and $56 million over five years for a battle management layer. This is not a constellation but a program to support software development and upgrades of “sensor to shooter data products.”
The budget also seeks $10 million in 2021 and $56 million over five years for a navigation layer. This is not for a new constellation but for developing alternative positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services to supplement GPS, potentially using the transport layer’s communications signals.
SDA wants to develop a deterrence layer for deep space surveillance, requesting $1 million in 2021 and $451 million over five years. This would fund the deployment of a six satellite constellation by 2023, growing to more than 30 satellites by 2025. The deterrence layer is to provide space situational awareness beyond geosynchronous orbit out to the lunar orbits. SDA also plans to study the possibility of developing a space maneuvering vehicle that would be deployed to cislunar orbits.
The final piece is the support layer, for which SDA is seeking $61 million in 2021 and $1.4 billion over five years. This is to help fund the procurement of about 40 launches, in either dedicated rockets or ride shares, that would be needed to deploy the constellations built by SDA and by other partner organizations. This funding line also pays for SDA to coordinate military service efforts to develop ground systems and user terminals.