Space Development Agency wants to demonstrate hardware before merging with Space Force

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Tournear: “I would contend that we need enough runway to be able to demonstrate that military utility."

WASHINGTON — The director of the Space Development Agency Derek Tournear again made the case that the agency needs at least two years to prove its business model before it is merged with the U.S. Space Force.

“I would contend that we need enough runway to be able to demonstrate that military utility,” Tournear said June 18 during an online chat with Chuck Beames, chairman of the industry group SmallSat Alliance.

The SDA is trying to show the utility of space systems consisting of large numbers of small satellites in low Earth orbit. Using mostly commercial technologies, SDA wants to create sensor and communications layers to provide persistent, low latency tracking and targeting.

Congress directed DoD to transfer the SDA to the Space Force by October 2022. The SDA is currently a Pentagon agency under the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, meanwhile, has argued that space programs should be consolidated under the Space Force and is pushing for the SDA to be realigned sooner than 2022.

Tournear said SDA will not be “brought in begrudgingly” to the Space Force. “We want to all have the same mission and go forward but we have to be able to demonstrate that constructive disruption first,” he said. A similar point was made by Tournear and his DoD bosses in a recent SpaceNews editorial

What SDA is trying to accomplish is “new and different” than anything being done by any other DoD procurement organization, Tournear said during the SmallSat Alliance event.

“Our architecture based on proliferation and spiral development is completely new,” he said. “We are not going to be building a system based on a very specific set of vetted requirements, but we’re going to be building a system based on that minimum viable product and spiral every two years to get better and better capabilities,” he said. “That’s new; that’s different.”

The first layer of satellites will be operational by the end of fiscal year 2022, said Tournear. “There will be enough critical mass at that point and enough pull on the capabilities that it won’t be stopped. If you do it before that … it will be stopped.”

The debate over the role and future of the Space Development Agency is unfolding as DoD pushes for faster innovation in space programs to counter China’s and Russia’s advances.

A new space strategy issued June 17 calls for new acquisition processes to innovate faster. The industry group National Security Space Association on June 18 released a white paper calling on the government and the industry to “evolve the way it does business.” The paper, which lists a series of recommended acquisition reforms, says this will require “necessary and difficult changes to both culture and operating models at every level of the U.S. government and industry.”