SDA preparing to buy 150 satellites in next tranche of military space architecture

The defense architecture will track missiles, provide ground support and improve surveillance.

The recently formed Space Development Agency is preparing to buy 150 satellites to continue to form a multi-layered system that will deliver data to weapons systems, extend surveillance and support ground systems with critical information.

The large buy of satellites is part of SDA’s “throwing spaghetti against the wall” approach of putting up a high volume of low-cost satellites.

“What our architecture is based on is proliferation and spiral development,” Derek Tournear, SDA director, said Tuesday at a Space Foundation event. “When I say ‘proliferation,’ I mean hundreds of satellites. That is what will give you the persistence and the resiliency that you need. The spiral development will give you the rapid capability and rapid fielding.”

Spiral development refers to the SDA’s plan to launch a new tranche of satellites every two years to add new capabilities to the Defense Department’s National Defense Space Architecture and “spiral out” the number of satellites in orbit. That system will improve command and control, increase surveillance, provide ground support and fit in with the military’s plan to quicken the pace between sensors, decision makers and warfighters.

SDA is currently in the process of buying satellites for Tranche 0, which will be in orbit by 2022. The 150 satellites will belong to Tranche One and SDA plans to put out requests for proposal this August;  SDA wants the satellites in space by 2024.

The agency noted that it was able to procure the 30 satellites for Tranche 0 at an average price of $14.1 million. The companies working on those products include L3Harris, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems.

L3Harris and SpaceX will build at least eight of the 10 overhead persistent infrared imaging satellites that will make up the initial tracking layer of the architecture.

“The satellites will be able to provide missile tracking data for hypersonic glide vehicles and the next generation of advanced missile threats,” said Tournear. “We call it ‘tracking’ because it’s missile tracking — so it provides detection, tracking and fire control formation for hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missiles and other threats.”

The remaining 20 satellites will build the transport layer of the system.

“The transport satellites are the backbone of the National Defense Space Architecture,” Tournear said. “They take data from multiple tracking systems, fuse those, and are able to calculate a fire control solution, and then the transport satellites will be able to send those data down directly to a weapons platform via a tactical data link, or some other means.”

Both L3Harris and SpaceX will build satellites of their own design, but meet criteria set by the SDA. They must all be able to do the missile tracking mission, and then also be able to communicate directly with transport layer satellites via laser communications link.

Tournear said Tranche One will form an operational transport layer.

“This is the ability to give us persistence over a given region of the globe for that low-latency tactical communications,” he said. “We’ll be able to pull other data from mission partners onto that transport layer so we can move those, integrate them and feed them directly to weapons and weapons platforms.”

SDA plans to have Tranche Two launched in 2026 and to have full global coverage with its architecture by 2027.

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