Space Development Agency looking to recover from tough start

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Defense officials say they support the SDA. But to former Air Force secretary Heather Wilson, it's not clear that the SDA "can or should be saved.”

WASHINGTON — Just over four months since it was signed into existence, the Space Development Agency is preparing to host its first conference with space industry contractors and is trying to reassure skeptics that the SDA is a real thing.

The sudden departure last month of former SDA director Fred Kennedy sparked speculation that the agency was in disarray. Five days later, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin named Derek Tournear, Griffin’s assistant director for space, as acting SDA director.

Both Griffin and Tournear have begun outreach to congressional and DoD leaders. The agency so far has been denied funding for fiscal year 2019 and is seeking $149 million for fiscal year 2020.

Maj. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of space programs at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told SpaceNews on Friday that she was an SDA skeptic but now sees opportunities to work with the agency on space projects.

“SDA still trying to get itself established,” said Armagno. “There have been personnel movements.”

Armagno said she met with Tournear recently to discuss future collaboration. In addition to an industry day July 23, the SDA will be hosting a tabletop exercise later in July that Air Force officials have been invited to attend.

She does not see the SDA in competition with the Air Force and is interested to see what the agency can do, said Armagno. “I absolutely see room for a space development type of agency in all the architecture work that we’re dealing with. There’s room for all of us in the future of space acquisition.”

The SDA lost its staunchest advocate when former acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan unexpectedly resigned June 18. President Trump’s nominee to be defense secretary Mark Esper said in written testimony he supports the SDA.

One reason congressional committees have been reluctant to fund the SDA is that they are unclear about what the agency is supposed to do. Committees were also confused about the SDA’s role in space-based missile defense. Griffin suggested that the SDA would be developing and deploying large numbers of low orbiting satellites — known as a proliferated low Earth orbit constellation — equipped with sensors to detect hypersonic missiles and other advanced weapons that are hard to track with traditional radar or with strategic missile warning satellites in higher orbits.

Armagno said the Air Force is still in charge of strategic missile warning satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit. “We’re talking about maybe augmenting that with a Missile Defense Agency layer,” she said. “And there is room for a proliferated LEO layer. The future is layers, and hybrid layers of capabilities.”

One contribution that the SDA would make is to figure out how to work with emerging commercial companies that are building proliferated LEO constellations, said Armagno. “When OneWeb, SpaceX put mesh networks in space, they could potentially put sensors on those mesh networks that the military could use, for weather, for communications, for infrared detection,” she said. “There’s room to work together.”

Armagno noted there are still many questions to be answered about military use of satellites in LEO. “I haven’t seen the analysis that shows how proliferated LEO could do the missions that the Air Force needs,” she said. “That work is underway.”

Former SecAF urges caution

ULA CEO Tory Bruno and former Air Force secretary Heather Wilson speak at the Aspen Security Forum. Credit: Tory Bruno – Twitter

Speaking on Friday at the 2019 Aspen Security Forum, former secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson voiced strong doubts about the SDA. While in office, Wilson pushed back against the establishment of the agency.

“I strongly opposed this because it would only work if no one attacks or jams our satellites — which we expect them to do,” Wilson told SpaceNews on Saturday. “A missile warning system like this would fail on America’s worst day,” she said.

“The initial concept put forward for the Space Development Agency was to use low cost, unprotected commercial satellites to detect and track any missile attack on the United States,” Wilson noted. “The concept for SDA then changed to be a commercially based satellite communications network. That could be useful and the Air Force is funding the development of that concept directly with industry and through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It’s not clear why a new defense agency is needed to do this.”

Wilson said it’s “not clear that the SDA can or should be saved.” Its mission keeps shifting, she said. “It doesn’t appear to have strong budget support from the Congress. It has no special acquisition or contracting authorities that would make it faster or better than DARPA or the Air Force; and it is disconnected from the military strategy needed to prevail in a contested space domain.”