Space Force embraces middle tier acquisition for satellites

As the Defense Department’s newest service, the Space Force took lessons learned from other services to create its own path forward in acquisition policy. It now increasingly uses middle tier acquisition (MTA) to get the equipment it needs on a streamlined timetable. The Space Development Agency’s (SDA) low earth orbit (LEO) satellites turned out to be trailblazers in an approach that aligns with commercial business practices and takes a little over two years from the start of the acquisition process to launch.

After a successful launch of its first 10 communication satellites in April, the next group of LEO satellites have a scheduled launch in June. The SDA ended bidding for its tranche 2 (beta) transport layer satellites on Wednesday and it plans to make an award announcement by mid-summer.

Space Force leaders tout the success of the acquisition program as the model for how the agency should purchase equipment in the future, and how to avoid the cost overruns and delays frequently associated with DoD acquisition. In what the Space Force characterizes as a space arms race with China, its leaders tout MTA as a way to keep pace.

“From the acquisition perspective, we’re looking at those ways to move things down the line faster. We’re building an operations concept of ground architecture and infrastructure that leverages the commercial model,” said Space Force Col. Kalliroi Landry, chief of the support cell at SDA.

Speaking at an AFCEA-DC lunch lecture Wednesday, Landry said the agency still has some tweaking to do on its LEO satellite program. It needs to improve communication with vendors and it needs to beef up security for both the systems and the data. Nevertheless, she said the strategy of rapid prototyping and rapid fielding is working. With a plan to keep all the program’s acquisitions within a timeframe of roughly two years, the MTA allows the agency a path forward by using OTAs to achieve that goal.

“The OTA model with middle tier acquisition really fits with what we’re trying to accomplish at this point. That has allowed us to tailor a lot of the acquisition and level of detail in order to move through the system quickly,” Landry said. “The defense acquisition system has opportunities to be tailored. And this is one of those models.”

Although SDA successfully used FAR-based contracts in the past, the plan moving forward involves using MTA whenever possible. The authority, which Congress granted in 2016, allows DoD to use a more streamlined acquisition process as long as equipment can be fielded within five years. Using MTA in conjunction with OTA’s allows for greater flexibility in the contracting process by skipping some FAR and DFAR regulations and statutes. It fits well with Space Force’s acquisition objective of buying commercial products whenever possible.

The satellites use low-latency communication links to send data. The first 28 satellites, categorized as tranche zero, are demonstration models, meant to prove capabilities. SDA plans for the tranche one satellites to launch in late 2024 as the first operational group. They are intended to provide the ability for targeting, missile warnings, and on-orbit fusion, a form of autonomous data processing.

Landry said SDA wanted to avoid the delays of having to come up with a design, and the satellites themselves are really just modified commercial satellites.

“What we want to do is work with space vehicle vendors to use a commoditized bus, something that’s already kind of ready to go. But then we add our payloads on there for the special missions that we want to accomplish. So that cuts down a lot of the manufacturing and design time,” said Landry in an interview with Federal News Network.

As SDA worked through the first generation of the satellites, Landry said the agency needed to improve its communication with vendors. She said the agency added requirements and fine-tuned their standards to do that.

“By having those standards available, refining them as we see things need to be communicated better, industry is able to read that and interpret what we want and provide solutions to meet our needs,” she said.

SDA follows a policy of multiple vendors and open competition as they move through what they call spiral phases of acquisition. Landry said the agency will keep looking for new talent.

“SDA’s model is to avoid vendor lock. We encourage competition. We want competition,” said Landry. “What you’ll see as we approach tranche two, our transport layer is going to have three different variants. And there will be multiple awards for each variant. It’s not locked into what has been delivered already for tranche zero or tranche one. There’s plenty of opportunity for other vendors to come and play.”

Another change that will take place in future launches is the way SDA contracts for the launch vehicles. For the first launch in April, SDA used its own contracting office to finalize its agreements with SpaceX. In the future, that work will be handled by the National Security Space Launch Enterprise and Space Systems Command.

 

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