ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. military’s ambitious plan to deploy a mega-constellation of satellites took a key step forward with the launch of the Space Development Agency’s first 10 satellites. 

Three days after the April 2 launch, the director of the agency Derek Tournear said SDA has established communication with all 10 satellites. “That’s pretty amazing,” he said on Wednesday at the Mitchell Institute Spacepower Security Forum.

This was the first launch of a projected mesh network of hundreds of small satellites in low Earth orbit known as the proliferated warfighter space architecture. It includes a Transport Layer of interconnected communications satellites and a Tracking Layer of missile-detection and warning sensor satellites. 

The successful launch of Tranche 0 satellites took place 27 months after SDA, an agency under the U.S. Space Force, ordered the satellites, drawing praise from senior officials. 

That delivery timeline is rarely seen in space acquisitions, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, said at the Mitchell Institute conference.

“For those that have been around the business for a while, 27 months is extremely fast,” he said. 

SDA is gearing up to launch 18 more Tranche 0 satellites in June. But the real ramp-up begins next year when Tranche 1 launches are scheduled to get under way. 

A total of 161 satellites are expected to be delivered over the next 18 months, including 126 for the Transport Layer and 35 for the Tracking Layer.

“Starting in September 2024, we are planning one launch per month for the next year,” Tournear said. “I’m pretty excited about that.”

Tranche 1 satellites, currently being produced by multiple bus and sensor manufacturers, will undergo design reviews later this month, Tournear said.

The Pentagon has allocated $700 million in 2023 and $500 million in 2024 to fund a total of 12 SDA launches. 

Hundreds more satellites coming

SDA meanwhile is preparing to issue a solicitation for the next contracts for Tranche 2 satellites, which would launch starting in 2026. A draft solicitation was published March 1

This will be SDA’s largest procurement to date, with 216 satellites projected for the Tranche 2 Transport Layer and roughly 54 for the Tracking Layer, although Tournear said the final number of tracking satellites has not yet been determined. 

What’s significant about Tranche 2 is that it will add enough nodes to the network to provide global coverage. “We are going to build on what we’ve done to essentially make the entire architecture globally persistent,” Tournear said. 

When Tranche 1 is deployed, DoD will be able to concentrate coverage over some regions of the world but not on the entire globe. 

“With Tranche 2 we will not need to make those trades,” Tournear said.

A model for how to ‘go fast’

In a memo April 5 circulated to the entire acquisition workforce, Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, highlighted the 27-month timeline achieved by SDA. 

“Three years or less from contract start to launch – a simple formula to go fast in space acquisition,” Calvelli wrote.

Echoing guidance he issued last year, Calvelli said the Space Force should leverage commercial products, rely on smaller satellites and buy under fixed-price contracts, which is what SDA does.

“Previously building large satellites with long development cycles on cost-plus contract contracts made sense but that time has passed,” Calvelli said. 

“To meet the pacing threat we are transforming from the few ‘big juicy targets’ of the past to a more proliferated and resilient architecture that can be counted on during times of crisis and conflict,” he added. “Drive contract scope to three years or less from start to launch.”

This formula, Calvelli insisted, “can be applied to all systems and all orbits.”

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...