WASHINGTON — Long before the Space Development Agency awarded its first contract, officials knew that building a diverse, strong supply base would be an important part of its plan to produce and field constellations of hundreds of small satellites.
The agency’s vision for using these proliferated constellations to augment and boost the resilience of traditional U.S. Department of Defense systems required a more flexible approach from the government and industry, officials told C4ISRNET. And so, from the beginning, SDA leadership challenged its prime contractors to find ways to foster competition among their supplier base and build redundancy into their strategies.
Although that approach hasn’t entirely shielded SDA from supply problems, it has helped the agency and its prime contractors mitigate major COVID-19 supply chain setbacks seen across the space industry. In some cases, companies have shared parts to help ease bottlenecks.
“One vendor had radios that they had ahead of schedule that they didn’t need until the second launch, the other vendor had optical crosslinks come in ahead of schedule,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said during a May 17 Space Industry Summit, held virtually. “They were short on radios or short on optical crosslinks and they were willing to actually share those with each other so that we hit our launch on time.”
That sort of teammate camaraderie is “kind of rare,” he said.
Concerns remain, and Tournear said that slow-downs for some items put pressure on the agency’s schedule to launch its first batch of satellites this fall. And despite efforts to diversify their supply bases, there are still dependencies among the agency’s major contractors.
Over the next few years, SDA plans to launch at least 182 satellites across two capability areas, known as layers: a transport layer that will provide networked communications and serve as the backbone for the Pentagon’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept; and a missile-tracking layer that can detect and track hypersonic weapons and advanced missile threats from space.
The list of companies on contract to build those satellites includes Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, traditional primes that have developed many of the large, expensive satellites that have made up the Defense Department’s space architecture for years. It also includes companies less known for being major satellite manufacturers -- SpaceX, L3Harris and Colorado-based York Space Systems.
In both cases, whether large and established or less seasoned at satellite production, companies had to adjust their supplier base in order to respond to SDA’s call for significant quantities of small satellites.
Lockheed Martin’s approach to the problem has been to establish what it calls the “Agility Partners Marketplace,” which is essentially a pool of suppliers whose parts and technology are vetted and mature. The company is on contract to build 10 satellites for the first round of transport layer satellites, dubbed “Tranche 0,” and 42 for Tranche 1.
Though Lockheed has an established, proven supply base for its other programs, 96% of its Tranche 1 vendors are non-traditional suppliers, according to Erik Daehler, the company’s lead for the protected communications mission area. Daehler told C4ISRNET the marketplace offers the company a base of suppliers who can compete for future work and serve as a backup source if supply issues arise with any of its vendors. It will also help in the future as Lockheed looks to ramp up production rates for larger tranches of SDA satellites.
“We now have a network of suppliers to provide our hardware,” he said in an April 6 interview. “We’ve given each of our suppliers areas where they can focus on improving their products and then we’ve given specific actions to some of them to say, ‘Here’s a way we could work on partnerships.’”
For the partnership piece, Daehler said Lockheed has been able to tailor its support for suppliers based on their needs. For example, one supplier was having to choose between investing in the equipment it needed to develop a certain piece of hardware or focusing on making other parts of its production system more efficient. Because Lockheed had that equipment available, the company could use its system and then shift its investments toward improving production efficiency.
L3Harris, a Melbourne, Florida- based space technology company that in recent years has been growing its satellite manufacturing capacity, has taken a “design-for-procurement” mentality to its piece of SDA’s architecture. The company is on contract to deliver four Tranche 0 missile tracking satellites.
According to Rob Mitrevski, the company’s vice president and general manager for spectral solutions, that mentality means that when his team develops satellite designs, it ensures that the parts those designs rely on are easy to buy.
“Some primes choose to go with multiple suppliers, which is sort of an easy approach,” Mitrevski told C4ISRNET in an interview. “The harder approach is to modify your designs and develop things that are easier and more producible.”
The company has also done what its vice president for space and airborne systems, Tim Lynch, calls “crowdsourcing procurement.”
“What we typically do is we look at the marketplace and who’s buying what and how much and say, ‘Can I get on that production line?’” Lynch said.
If it works, he said, L3Harris doesn’t have to start its own production line for a small quantity of a component but can instead take advantage of economies of scale on a line that is already producing large amounts of that part.
Mitrevski said that if the company’s work with SDA expands into additional production, the strategy can grow with it.
“It’s all extensible,” he said. “We took the long-term view, which was, we have to design for producibility, manufacturability, scale and volume. Because the prize isn’t this phase. The prize is being participants on the programs of record and the constellations that exist beyond that.”
While SDA and its industry partners were able to stave off supply chain problems with many of the high-end satellite components, Tournear said the agency has been caught off guard by issues with some of the lower-level parts including resistors, cables and connectors.
Along with the radios that are putting pressure on SDA’s Tranche 0 launch timeline, the agency has had to change vendors for its optical crosslinks, which provide direct communications between satellites and are a key enabler for the transport layer.
Tournear said he expects the Tranche 0 launch schedule will stay on track despite these concerns, but he anticipates the agency will face similar issues as it looks to launch satellites in larger quantities in the future.
“We anticipate the same difficulties,” he said. “The advantages are that the suppliers know it’s coming. They know it’s real.”
He added that while industry will be more prepared for unexpected issues, it’s not possible to predict what components might cause problems.
“It’s one of those things where we have to play ‘Whack-a-Mole’ as we build these satellites out,” he said.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.