WASHINGTON — The first launch of the Space Development Agency’s low Earth orbit satellites that had been scheduled for late September is slipping to no earlier than mid-December. 

Speaking at the Washington Space Business Roundtable Sept. 14, SDA Director Derek Tournear said the launch of the agency’s Tranche 0 satellites had to be delayed due to supply chain problems that have affected all vendors in the program.

The 28 satellites in Tranche 0 include 20 communications payloads made by Lockheed Martin and York Space; and eight missile-tracking infrared sensor satellites made by SpaceX and L3Harris.

Tournear over the past two years had expressed confidence that at least six to eight Tranche 0 satellites would launch in September. But components and microchip shortages that have stymied satellite manufacturers industry-wide have caught up with SDA. 

“We were going hard and fast” on Tranche 0 but software delays and a shortage of radios affected the deliveries from all four suppliers, he said. All 28 Tranche 0 satellites will be launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets under a $150 million commercial services contract. 

“The end of September was a stretch goal” that would have allowed SDA to launch just two years from contract award, said Tournear. The second batch of Tranche 0 is still on track to launch in March. 

The agency is working to deploy a network of satellites in low Earth orbit to serve as the eyes and ears of military forces in the field. The communications satellites make up the Transport Layer and the missile-detection satellites are the Tracking Layer. 

While it typically takes the Pentagon a decade to field new satellites, SDA set a goal to acquire batches of new spacecraft every two years and launch them in frequent intervals. The agency selected as its motto “semper citius” — Latin for “always faster” — to emphasize the idea that putting good-enough capabilities in the hands of troops soon is preferable to delivering the perfect solution too late.

He said the manifest for the first Tranche 0 launch is still in flux,  but the plan is to have a mixture of both tracking and transport satellites. “We’re shooting for between nine and 10 total satellites on that launch,” he said. “And the remainder will be going up on the March launch.”

Tournear noted that the Tracking Layer got a late start due to a bid protest challenging the L3Harris and SpaceX awards. But had it not been for the supply chain setbacks that emerged in 2020 during the covid pandemic and continue to this day, the protest alone likely would not have affected the delivery schedule, said Tournear.

“The longest pole in the tent that caused those satellites to slip was actually component delays, primarily stemming from microelectronics,” he said. “It was very difficult for us to get microelectronics, especially space qualified microelectronics for components such as radios.”

All four vendors went back to the drawing board and redesigned satellites based on the available components and what they could get fastest, said Tournear. Even though they are working under fixed-price contracts, “this was all on their nickel,” he added. The lead time to get some parts used to be two months and suddenly that stretched to 18 months, said Tournear. 

“Industry did a great job with that,” he said. “And on the government side, we went to all of our government partners that had parts on the shelf” and asked them to share them with SDA.  

“All four companies had issues with components” and in one case all four relied on the same vendor, making it almost impossible to stay on schedule, he said. “I had high confidence that we would have at least six satellites” ready to launch in September but things didn’t work out. 

Tournear said none of SDA’s suppliers so far has asked for an adjustment to their fixed-price contracts due to the effects of inflation. The Defense Department on Sept. 12 issued new guidance to contracting officers allowing them to consider giving contractors some relief in fixed-price contracts based on specific circumstances. 

“We have received no requests from contractors for inflation adjustments,” said Tournear.

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...