COVID, OneWeb and how the Space Development Agency has coped

In March 2019, the Department of Defense established the Space Development Agency to oversee the creation of a new national security space architecture, one that would forego the traditional U.S. Air Force approach of using a small number of large satellites in higher orbits in favor of a proliferated constellation of smaller satellites operating in low Earth orbit.

SDA was established to move faster than the traditional national security space establishment. It plans on launching its first satellites just three years after being stood up and placing new satellites on orbit every two years in a spiral development approach. Now just over a year after being organized, the agency has issued its first solicitation for tranche 0, that first set of about 20 satellites that will serve as a base for its constellation that will ultimately be made up of hundreds of satellites, and is close to issuing a second.

SDA Director Derek Tournear sat down (virtually) May 19 with C4ISRNET’s Nathan Strout to discuss his agency’s progress, the health of the industrial base and the impact of COVID-19 on his plans.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

C4ISRNET: First, the agency has been notably busy over the last month—can you give us an update on SDA’s progress?

DEREK TOURNEAR: Our (request for proposals) for our first tranche is rapidly coming to a close (and we’re) excited to see what proposals we get in there on June 1 for our transport Tranche 0. We’ve just put out our draft RFP for our tracking tranche 0, which is our [Overhead Persistent Infrared] for the advanced missile threat satellites. Our plan is to have that final RFP out June 15. We want to have both rapid turns because our plan is to get performers for tracking and transport tranche 0 on contract as rapidly as possible. The main feedback I’ve been getting from industry on both of these is the end of FY22 is rapidly approaching, so there’s not a lot of room for error to make sure that we get something up on that timeframe, and that’s our goal.

C4ISRNET: The draft tracking layer calls for eight Wide Field of View (WVOF) satellites to be launched in FY22, to be followed by a few Medium Field of View (MFOV) in FY23. Will we see a separate RFP for the MFOV satellites?

TOURNEAR: The MFOV satellites we want to launch as close as possible to the WFOV, but they’re a little bit larger, a little bit more complicated satellites and they’ll take a little longer and that’s what is dragging it out to the ‘23 timeframe. What we are doing for MFOV — those are actually MDA’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) satellites, so we’re working with them and MDA has their plans on how they’re going to downselect from the current performers to performers to build out one or two satellites for the MFOV. So any solicitation for the MFOV satellites will be the solicitations for the HBTSS satellites.

C4ISRNET: What feedback have you received from industry on these solicitations? Have you changed what you’re looking for in response to industry feedback?

TOURNEAR: Only small adjustments. On the transport RFP, when we had the draft out we got feedback regarding some technical specifications and details that we adjusted before we put out the final. I haven’t seen what kind of responses we’ve received for tracking, but I imagine they’ll be along those same lines. They’ll be very technical in nature.

But overall the baseline plan to be able to get tranche 0 up in this timeframe we haven’t changed at all and we’re continuing to press on that. And so far the main feedback I’ve gotten from industry in addition to “Wow that’s fast” is they’re very excited. They’re very excited that there is an agency out there that is pushing this model, that they can respond to, that is driving a market that will show that there are new capabilities going out, that will allow them to bid to on a rapid cadence.

C4ISRNET: And your impression so far is that industry can support that cadence?

TOURNEAR: A lot of the very specific bus components and some of the specific electronics and focal planes for tracking are the longest lead items. And those lead times are around 40 weeks for the longest, so that is supportable for the launch time scale that we’re talking about, with the advantage being that that’s kind of the initial setup. So once you get the first satellite up, then industry is able to respond and they’re able to build several of these a month after that. So I believe that the supply chain is strong to be able to support the number of satellites that we need and the cadence of a new tranche every two years seems to be right in the sweet spot of what is not easy to do, but certainly within the realm of the possible.

C4ISRNET: OneWeb, one of the two major companies building out a commercial proliferated LEO constellation, declared bankruptcy back in March. Does that concern you from an industrial base perspective?

TOURNEAR: (OneWeb’s) biggest contribution to what SDA needs in addition to just getting everyone excited about this proliferated architecture was that they set up a very good supply chain for the way they were going to run their satellites, and they had a very sophisticated ground network as well.

It is unfortunate that they declared bankruptcy because it would have been nice to continue that commoditization up for another generation, at least another couple of years. However, I don’t think that there is any fallout of that constellation going away that is really going to be that big of an impact. They had a very specific supply chain set up to feed their specific designs of their constellation, but overall it was not raising all of the different technologies that are needed for the SDA architecture. If anything, what it has done is actually force SDA to become one of the forefront customers for a lot of these commoditized vendors. That actually may help us because now they may actually tailor some of their commoditized offerings for what SDA needs versus what OneWeb needs.

It also kind of emphasized the SDA’s goal from the beginning that we wanted to make sure that we relied on commercial commoditized technology, but we did not want to rely on commercial companies for these kinds of reasons. We wanted to make sure that we could provide a capability that was guaranteed for the war fighter, and relying on a commercial entity (where) you may have resilience due to proliferation, but lose resilience due to market influences.

C4ISRNET: At an industry day a year ago, you said the SDA would be taking lessons learned from DARPA’s Project Blackjack for SDA’s constellation. Obviously it’s a very tight timeframe between when the first Blackjack satellites are going to launch and when the SDA’s satellites are set to launch. Do you still think there are lessons you’re going to be able to take from DARPA’s on orbit experiments to incorporate into SDA’s tranche 0?

TOURNEAR: Yes. Primarily the lessons learned will be lessons that industry has learned so that they can better bid to what we’re requesting in our tranche 0 satellite solicitations. So most of the lessons learned will not be on the government side, it will actually be on the performers side because they have been working on the Blackjack program and so they have been incorporating technology as it develops and they will incorporate that into their bids.

Now some specifics. On the WFOV IR payload, DARPA is actually flying one that is going to be very similar to what is going to be required to meet the specifications for our WFOV tranche 0 tracking satellite. So we anticipate all of the lessons learned on that particular payload will fit in directly to what is needed for tranche 0 and beyond on WFOV.

In addition, there has been a lot of developments on commoditized components on the buses, so a lot of the work on flight systems and attitude and control systems has been developed under Blackjack, and that has built up this industrial base that is able to support our solicitations. Further, so past tranche 0, most of the work that DARPA has done on the Pit Boss aspect — which is the really advanced flight computers and advanced algorithms to do different autonomous networking and data fusions, those types of things —they’ve done a lot of work pushing that. The timing of that technology may not come to bear until tranche 1, but that might not meet the tranche 0 timing.

C4ISRNET: How is SDA coping with the COVID-19 situation? What steps has the agency taken to mitigate its impact?

TOURNEAR: First and foremost, it is an agency goal to protect our employees, support staff and then the performers working on our projects. We’ve been taking the guidance that the (Secretary of Defense Mark Esper) has been giving out—he’s actually been leading very far forward to help the department mitigate that and come up with different options. So within the Pentagon itself, say the actual work that SDA is doing, the Pentagon has been very supportive in coming up with the tools necessary for telework. So almost all of our staff has all been teleworking for the past 10 weeks. A very small amount come in one or two days a week to make sure if there’s anything that needs to be done in the Pentagon, primarily for classification reasons and things like that. We’ve been supported very well within the department.

Now, on the performers side. Obviously teleworking works very well for what we’re doing within the government, but on the performers’ side, obviously you can’t have easily built satellites at home. But the performers have responded very well. For the smaller companies, they’ve actually moved a lot of their test equipment back to their garages and have been doing a lot of analysis and testing at home. And then the larger companies have move to shift work so they’re able to enforce social distancing while continuing to still make progress.

So for the activities that SDA is directly impacted by, there’s been a small COVID impact. The memo that the department sent out specifying that DoD programs are critical by nature helped a lot. That gave the industrial base what they needed to be able to keep producing and keep working. So it’s been pretty good.

The only major impact has been on that HBTSS with flight lead delay, and due to the classified nature of what that program is working on and their specifications. Almost everything that program is working on is classified and the people working out of MDA in Schriever Air Force Base were not allowed to work on site for a period, so there were some delays due to that. But we’ve been pretty fortunate that we’ve recovered well in being able to adapt and overcome.

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