Space Force reorganization could raise profile of DARPA’s space missions

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The Pentagon is directing space procurement organizations to focus on resiliency in a future armed conflict, which is good news for programs like DARPA's Blackjack, said Fred Kennedy, director of the agency's Tactical Technology Office.

LONDON — Fred Kennedy, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Tactical Technology Office, has been a longtime critic of the “risk averse” culture in the Defense Department that favors exquisite satellites even though they take much longer to develop and cost far more than products available in the open market. He now sees the tide potentially turning as the Pentagon looks for ways to make military space systems less attractive targets to adversaries.

“You keep building more expensive things that take longer. And people learn how to produce countermeasures,” Kennedy said Nov. 5 at the Small Satellites and Disruptive Technology Focus Day conference hosted by the SMi Group.

DARPA is pushing the idea — also embraced by Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin — that small satellites in large numbers are one way to make U.S. space systems less vulnerable. Companies in the small satellite business like the United Kingdom’s Surrey Satellite Technology are “providing lessons that we still may not have figured out on our side of the pond,” said Kennedy. “We’re getting better at it. But in the U.S. there is still a large group of folks who think small satellites are just toys.”

The Pentagon is directing space procurement organizations to focus on resiliency in a future armed conflict, which is good news for programs like Blackjack, said Kennedy. “We see a strong command signal from senior leaders for change. They see the problem in space.”

Blackjack is a project to deploy a 20-satellite prototype constellation of small commercial spacecraft in low Earth orbit. The plan is to show that complex military space missions like early missile warning and navigation could be done faster and cheaper with commercial space technologies, and that these large constellations would be harder for an enemy to disable by virtue of the large number of targets.

Kennedy said he would not comment specifically on plans to establish a Space Force as a separate military service. But he suggested that DARPA’s efforts to shake up the “space architecture” and invest in nontraditional technology are in line with the message that the military space business  cannot be done the same old way. In addition to Blackjack, DARPA is leading a technology competition for small launch vehicle providers and oversees a project to develop a satellite-servicing robot.

The Pentagon wants to stand up a Space Development Agency that presumably would take over space projects like Blackjack. The new agency is being pitched as one that would grab technology from the private sector and rapidly apply it to military systems.

Kennedy said Blackjack has the potential to show that a mega constellation in low Earth orbit can do what today is done by “monolithic single systems.”

The first step will be to buy commercial satellite buses from companies such as SpaceX or OneWeb that are preparing to build massive broadband internet satellite constellations in low Earth orbit. “The point of Blackjack is to provide constant custody, not lose track, to have the internet of things, see all the planet all the time,” said Kennedy.

When the broadband constellations start deploying over the next two years, DARPA will acquire 20 satellites from one of the manufacturers. “We would host military payloads on these satellites, and use the commercial communications infrastructure as a sub-strait, as a space-based internet,” said Kennedy. How is this useful to the military? It would give the Department of Defense ubiquitous global coverage, said Kennedy.

The next step, which DARPA dubbed “Casino,” will be the development of a full constellation for specific military missions such as positioning, navigation and timing; or missile warning. “We will ask the users what they’re interested in,” said Kennedy. “Customers could decide if they want to complete the constellation.” For early warning infrared, for example, “we are probably talking about a 90 to 120 constellation for ubiquitous coverage,” he said. “We’re putting up 20 to show we  can do it. If someone wants the whole coverage they can purchase the remainder of the satellites.”

Kennedy said the military should find “great value” in doing the early warning space mission from lower orbits. Positioning, navigation and timing also could be appealing from a LEO constellation because it would provide a backup to GPS. ‘There is a lot of interest in alternatives to GPS,” he said. “When GPS is jammed, we can provide this capacity out of band, with communications.”

The U.S. Air Force is a major partner in the Blackjack project and is in discussions with DARPA on how the program potentially could be accelerated. If the Air Force opted to pursue an operational constellation under Casino, it would have to fully fund it. Casino, however, is the type of project that could end up in the portfolio of the Space Development Agency, which has cast some uncertainty on how much money the Air Force would invest in a program knowing that it could be taken away.

So far it is all just conjecture, Kennedy said. With a reorganization looming, “obviously there’s a huge swirl over who owns what in space.”