Space Development Agency praised as change agent in Pentagon procurement
WASHINGTON — “We couldn’t believe they went so fast,” Telesat executive Don Brown said of the Space Development Agency’s first major contract award for 20 satellites.
Brown, general manager of government services for the Canadian communications satellite operator Telesat, said he and many colleagues in the space industry expected that the SDA would take years to review contractor proposals and select vendors.
“They did it months. It surprised the heck out of us,” Brown said Sept. 17 at ASCENDxSummit, a virtual event hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Brown spoke on a panel that included Derek Tournear, the director of the SDA; Michael Dickey, head of space architecture for the U.S. Space Force; and Peter Wegner, chief strategy officer of geospatial intelligence provider BlackSky.
The SDA on Aug. 31 announced it had selected two contractors to build the first batch of satellites for a military communications mesh network known as Transport Layer Tranche 0, four months after posting the final solicitation for bids.
The SDA is “changing the space acquisition paradigm,” Brown said. “The core challenge of the national security space architecture is not really engineering, it’s really culture and acquisition.”
The agency plans to develop a constellation of small satellites in low orbits and have the first 20 satellites in orbit in two years at a price of about $15 million per satellite — a departure from the traditional model of acquiring large geostationary spacecraft that take years to produce and cost hundreds of millions of dollars apiece. Tournear said the Transport Layer eventually could grow to hundreds of satellites and SDA also will develop more layers for other functions such as missile defense and targeting.
Telesat is developing a commercial low-Earth orbit constellation of 298 internet satellites. For the SDA program, it is a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin, one of two companies selected to each build 10 satellites for the Transport Layer. Telesat will provide technical advice to Lockheed Martin on the use of optical crosslinks to connect satellites on orbit.
Commercial suppliers of space services “look at the opportunity and cost of bidding on DoD space components,” said Brown. “SDA convinced us in industry to bid complicated space systems at firm fixed price. So what they achieved is architectural clarity. They told us what they needed.”
Brown said there are other pockets of change in military space procurement besides SDA. Within the Space and Missile Systems Center, the office led by Col. Russell Teehan that is overseeing the space architecture is “doing very helpful things,” Brown said.
That office is in charge of forging partnerships with private industry and foreign allies and coming up with new ways to get involved with DoD, said Brown.
SMC’s commercial satellite communications procurement office also is changing how they engage with companies, Brown said. They are asking industry what would motivate companies to invest in services that the military needs. “So there are very hopeful signs,” he said.
How DoD can influence investments
Brown said DoD holds enormous leverage as a large buyer of space systems and services but does’t always know how to use that power.
“My suggestion to DoD colleagues is to define the commercial role in the architecture, not just as augmentation,” he said. “Make it real, budget for it.”
Money in the budget is the “carrot to get your leverage,” Brown said. In turn, DoD should try to get companies to agree on common standards for things like interoperability, network security and landing stations. “That’s the stick,” he said. “Once the stick and once the carrot are defined, industry will invest.”
Wegner, of BlackSky, had a different take, arguing that DoD has not yet figured out how to capitalize on private sector innovation.
“We’re still doing business like it’s 1951. We’re still following McNamara’s POMing process,” Wegner said using the Pentagon acronym for ‘program objective memorandum.”
“We’re still following the JROC [joint requirements oversight council] process that was built in 1984,” Wegner said. Back then, half of all research and development spending came from the U.S. government whereas now private sector investment accounts for 80% of the nation’s R&D.
“I hear people talking about how we’re going to leverage all these commercial investments,” said Wegner. But DoD doesn’t always understand that industry has to make a profit so it can invest in technologies that DoD needs.
“I think the government really needs to think hard about how do we leverage the power of the private capital market that exists in the U.S. that’s been the envy of the world in terms of innovation and speed,” said Wegner.
Space Force wants change
The U.S. Space Force, which gets most of the military space funding, is looking to make changes in acquisition programs, said Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, the staff director at the office of Space Force chief of space operations.
“We have to cut our acquisition timelines, we have to design simpler,” Armagno said Sept. 17 on a live interview with the chairman of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Armagno said the Space Force has to shift from what she called “Taj Mahal satellites to simpler satellites, not exquisite one-of-a-kind that take 20 years from conception to delivery and launch.”
The Space Force also wants to make satellites less vulnerable to hostile attacks, Armagno said. Current satellites, for example, only communicate to a single ground command-and-control system and require specific user terminals. “That’s a vulnerability,” she said. “That stovepiped system is vulnerable to cyber attacks, on-orbit attacks.”
For future systems, “we’re exploring breaking down those circles of excellence and creating maybe a single operations floor to command and control all our satellites.”
Proliferated constellations of smaller satellites “create layers of capability with cheaper, replaceable satellites, in distributed orbits,” Armagno said. And systems have to be acquired faster, she said. “In commercial companies acquisition life cycles are rapid. We want to tap into those capabilities.”