Space Force tries to turn over a new leaf in satellite procurement

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The Space Force's next acquisition of missile-warning satellites will follow the playbook of the Space Development Agency

WASHINGTON — The Space Force is planning its next major procurement of satellites — a constellation in medium Earth orbit that will track missile launches — as the service’s acquisitions come under increasing scrutiny.

The Space Systems Command next year will seek industry bids for as many as four infrared sensing satellites in medium Earth orbit (MEO) for missile warning and tracking. The satellites will add a new layer to the Pentagon’s planned multi-orbit architecture of space sensors. 

“We will provide increased capacity and capability, and ultimately resilience for the entire architecture,” Col. Brian Denaro, space sensing program executive officer at Space Systems Command, said Oct. 19 at an industry conference in Los Angeles hosted by AFCEA, the National Defense Industrial Association, the Southern California Aerospace Professional Representative, and the Air and Space Forces Association.

Denaro said this procurement will take a “clean slate approach” and not follow the traditional processes used in legacy satellite acquisitions.

The Pentagon decided to add MEO satellites to the missile-defense architecture to provide extra eyes on enemy hypersonic missiles. Compared to current sensors in geostationary satellites, sensors in medium orbits would see closer to Earth and track a wider area than satellites in low Earth orbit.  

DoD is seeking $4.7 billion for missile-tracking satellites in the 2023 budget request, including $140 million for the MEO layer. The Space Force agency in charge of architecture designs has recommended a constellation of 135 missile-warning and missile-tracking satellites in LEO and 16 in MEO.

Denaro said the MEO constellation will follow the playbook of the Space Development Agency, which buys satellites in increments, or tranches, every two years. Traditional missile-warning geostationary satellites are custom designs that take years to develop, a process that was criticized by Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Frank Calvelli, who oversees space acquisitions. “The old approach, the seven-year development contracts that we’re doing for GEO satellites … that has to change,” Calvelli said at AFA’s annual conference last month.

The message from Calvelli has been heard loud and clear, Brig. Gen. Timothy Sejba, program executive officer for space domain awareness and combat power, said Oct. 19 in Los Angeles.

“He has made the point that at the core of everything is sound program management focused on cost, schedule and performance,” said Sejba.

The strategy for the MEO satellites is an example “of how we will execute to what the SAE [Calvelli] has asked us to go do,” he said. 

Sejba noted that Calvelli’s advice also applies to satellite contractors. “He made it very clear that he needs industry to only bid on the programs that you think you can execute and, if you bid, that you understand what the risks are, that you also bring mature technology so that we don’t find ourselves in a four-year program with an eight-year technology development.”

Adopting SDA model

The MEO satellite network will get upgrades every two years, an approach similar to that used by the Space Development Agency (SDA). 

SDA is building a mesh network of hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit that includes a Transport Layer to relay time-sensitive data to military forces and a Tracking Layer of satellites to detect hypersonic missiles. 

The MEO satellites will be acquired in “two-year sprints, if you will, like SDA tranches,” said Denaro. “The idea is that we’re inserting incremental capability into those layers on a very regular cadence.”

To coordinate missile-tracking programs handled by separate organizations, Denaro was put in charge of a combined program office that includes the Space Systems Command, the Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency. 

In advance of the procurement of MEO satellites, the Space Systems Command last year started a “MEO Track Custody Demonstration” with Millennium Space and Raytheon developing digital models. 

Denaro said the deployment of missile-detection satellites is critical to keep up with the proliferation of ballistic and hypersonic missiles and the possibility that they could be targeted at U.S. forces and allies. 

“The trend line is worrisome,” he said. The Space Force tracked 1,968 missile launches globally in 2021. So far in 2022, “we’ve already seen an increase of over three and a half times more launches. So let that sink in for a moment.”

There is a staggering number of “hot things launching off the face of the Earth that we need to not only detect, but track and predict where they’re going, warn our national command authority and the weapon systems that can do something about it.”