The future of the Space Development Agency is absolutely necessary to delivering persistent, global space capabilities in an affordable and timely manner, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin. However, the ongoing budget gridlock puts the future of the fledgling agency at risk.
“Continuing resolutions, budget battles of any kind, are an enormous problem for the national security community,” said Griffin. “When the things we think we need to do are delayed or prevented by budget battles in Congress and continuing resolutions, it slows us down and in some cases prevents us from doing things that we earnestly believe we need to do. The Space Development Agency is one of, but by no means the only, casualty of our current situation.”
The administration requested $149.8 million in new funding for the SDA for fiscal year 2020, and is reported to want almost $11 billion over the next five years. Still, the agency needs Congress to approve that funding.
Griffin says he sees bipartisan agreement in Congress that the United States needs to reform its space architecture. But for now, the SDA is waiting for Congress to allocate them the funding needed to pursue the projects on its agenda, he said.
“I don’t know if we will ever get a budget,” said Griffin. “We will cope as best we can.”
Griffin oversaw the establishment of the SDA as a way to build the future national security space architectures while avoiding the conventional acquisition system, which was operating at too slow a pace to meet the military’s needs.
“Our government acquisition timelines tend toward the 15-year mark on average, from statement of need to operational capabilities. Our adversaries are using three- and four-year timelines consistent with what we used to be able to do,” said Griffin.
As an example, Griffin pointed to the F-117A stealth fighter, where there was only a 32-month stretch between signing a contract and getting an operational plane on the runway.
“If we can’t relearn how to do what we once knew how to do better than any other society, we will not prevail,” said Griffin. “So the Space Development Agency was created in the DoD to work outside the existing acquisition system to work with commercial space, to work with the purveyors of new architectures that will be more proliferated, more resilient and above all else, more timely in their application.”
For Griffin, the SDA was established to solve two overwhelming needs for the military: guaranteed communications and the ability to detect and track hypersonic weapons.
The SDA is currently looking to provide that first need through a layer of 70 satellites in low-Earth orbit. That large constellation provides resiliency through numbers, explained Griffin, and prevents a Pearl Harbor-type strike that could knock out all of the U.S. military’s guaranteed communications capabilities in a single blow. While the DoD will continue to purchase significant amounts of time on commercial communications satellites, that need for a resilient, guaranteed communications capability is unlikely to be provided commercially, he added.
Griffin also sees the SDA providing a LEO solution to detecting and tracking hypersonic weapons, which are much dimmer than the conventional ballistic missiles the Air Force’s current missile detection architecture was designed to handle. According to Griffin, the hypersonic challenge can be met in two ways: placing sensors closer to the missiles themselves (i.e., placing the sensors in LEO instead of geostationary orbit) or by putting even stronger sensors in GEO. In cooperation with the Missile Defense Agency, the SDA is taking the former approach.
“This will give us the persistent, global, low-latency surveillance, tracking, targeting and fire control we have to have to meet these new threats,” said Griffin. “If we take as our paradigm that this is going to be government business as usual, then I don’t know what the outcome will be, but … I can guarantee what the outcome won’t be: The outcome won’t be affordable and it won’t be timely.”
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.