WASHINGTON — With the start of the federal government’s new fiscal year, and as required by law, the Space Development Agency formally transitioned into the U.S. Space Force on Oct. 1.
SDA was created in 2019 to oversee development of a new kind of satellite architecture that relies less on large satellites based in high orbits and more on small, proliferated spacecraft residing in low Earth orbit, about 1,200 miles above the planet’s surface.
The agency has, until now, been under the purview of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. Congress mandated in the Fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that SDA become part of the Space Force in fiscal 2023 in an effort to align space acquisition under the Space Force. So, as of this weekend, SDA Director Derek Tournear now reports directly to the service’s acquisition executive, Frank Calvelli, for capability development and procurement matters. The agency will report to Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond for personnel and other issues.
Calvelli and other service officials have embraced SDA’s acquisition plan to build and launch large constellations of satellites and refresh that technology every two years, a concept called spiral development. The service’s posture marks a significant shift from three years ago, when Air Force leaders publicly fought the organization’s establishment, criticizing its mission as redundant.
“SDA will be key to rapidly delivering space capability to our warfighters,” Calvelli said in an Oct. 1 statement. “SDA’s proliferated LEO constellation, as an integral part of the Space Force’s force design, brings resiliency, accelerated capability delivery through spiral development and rapid technology refresh.”
Speaking Sept. 20 during the Air, Space and Cyber conference in National Harbor, Md., Calvelli said the Space Force wants to apply SDA’s approach across its acquisition portfolio as a way to speed program development and make its satellite architectures more resilient.
Congress has also shown increasing support for SDA, and in fiscal 2022 appropriated about $1.2 billion for the agency, $550 million more than it requested.
Tournear told reporters during a Sept. 21 briefing at the ASC conference that while he was initially “apprehensive” about becoming part of the Space Force, he’s warmed up to the idea.
“It’s clear that we are getting a lot of support from the Space Force,” he said. “The Space Force is behind us, and I’m actually confident that we’re going to be able to continue to push hard.”
Any differences in SDA’s near-term operations will be minimal, Tournear said. Personnel will move to a new office at the Pentagon and their paychecks will now come from the Space Force, he said, but the chain of command within the organization will stay the same and he doesn’t expect any personnel changes.
The agency’s first time seeking Calvelli’s sign-off on its acquisition plans will come in March, Tournear noted, when SDA’s Warfighter Integration Council meets to discuss what baseline capabilities it wants from its next batch of satellites. Those meetings are held every six months and will continue at that cadence, he said.
“I don’t anticipate any major change there, but that’s the first time when you’ll see that at that point, we will get approvals through the Space Force versus through [the Office of the Secretary of Defense,]” Tournear said.
SDA had expected to launch its first batch, or “tranche,” of satellites this month but supply chain delays linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and a 2020 bid protest have pushed that timeline to December. The mission will include missile warning satellites that are part of SDA’s Tranche 0 Tracking Layer and communication satellites supporting the agency’s Tranche 0 Transport Layer.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.