WASHINGTON — When the Pentagon established the Space Development Agency five years ago, it encountered fierce resistance from stalwarts of the military’s traditional satellite programs.

The agency had been given an ambitious but controversial mission: to build a new orbital architecture for national security using small satellites and commercially available technologies, overturning decades of preference for larger, ultra-costly spacecraft that took years to design and launch.

Many in the Air Force’s procurement ranks viewed the idea as heresy, threatening the huge investments and contractor relationships behind existing satellite programs. 

But five years later, the agency is deploying the initial portion of a low-Earth orbit constellation called the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. It has 27 satellites on orbit and plans to launch more than 160 over the next 18 months.

“You’re going to ruffle feathers and you’re not going to make friends, but that’s what you need to do to be disruptive,” said Derek Tournear, the agency’s director. “And so far, it’s been working well.”

The Space Development Agency now has 322 employees and an annual budget of more than $4.2 billion. 

The agency is viewed inside the Pentagon — and now the Space Force, which was carved out of the Air Force in December 2019 — as a model for a swifter, more commercial style of procurement and launch — perhaps a paradigm for how the military could overhaul its purchasing more broadly.

During a recent interview with SpaceNews, Tournear acknowledged that the path for the Space Development Agency has hardly been smooth, with doubters inside the Pentagon and Congress initially unwilling to fund its first-year budget request. 

RDT&E: Research, Development, Testing & Engineering – MW/MT: Missile Warning Missile Tracking

A major challenge for the Space Development Agency has been ensuring timely deliveries from suppliers amid lingering supply chain disruptions stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s been tough,” Tournear said. But he noted that companies are slowly getting back on track as bottlenecks ease. SDA program managers are in constant contact with vendors, he said, and the situation can change from day to day, particularly with lower-tier suppliers.  

Another point of contention has been the agency’s insistence on fixed-price contracting methods that commit suppliers to meeting a set cost — or risk having to absorb overruns out of their own funds.

Some major defense contractors are reportedly shying away from fixed-price contracts, viewing them as too risky. But Tournear said companies remain eager to vie for SDA work because the agency asks for mature technologies that do not require risky development work.

The Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture includes a Transport Layer of data communications satellites that will serve as a tactical network to move data collected by a Tracking Layer of infrared sensors to users around the world. The Transport Layer satellites are estimated to cost between $14 million and $15 million each, and Tracking Layer satellites is expected to cost $42 million to $45 million per copy.

Those are competitive prices that include not just the manufacture of fully integrated spacecraft but also launch and ground services, Tournear said. And they reflect SDA’s strategy of tapping into commercial sectors to drive down costs through serial production.

‘New vendors coming in’

Tournear said he sees the Space Development Agency’s contracting opportunities as increasingly attractive for both traditional and commercial vendors, with “new vendors coming in every day” to bid on work.

While the agency has awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to established defense giants like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and L3Harris, it has also placed big orders with newer commercial manufacturers like York Space Systems. 

Most recently, two of the agency’s high-stakes contracts for Tranche 1 of the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture were split between Lockheed Martin, L3Harris and two relative newcomers to the national security satellite arena — Rocket Lab and Sierra Space.

“For that contract we actually saw a huge increase in the number of proposals,” said Tournear. “I was surprised by the number of proposals that we saw. That really speaks to a market that’s healthy.”

Tranche 2 of the PSWA — scheduled to start launching in 2026 — is projected to have 300 satellites. 

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...