SDA Preps Plans for ‘Tranche One’ Satellites

Pentagon officials are nailing down what the military wants to see from its next round of new satellites procured by the Space Development Agency, with a request for proposals due out this summer, the agency’s director said Feb. 16.

The Defense Department is in the middle of defining its needs for the group of communications, missile tracking, and other satellites known as “Tranche One,” which are slated to reach space by 2024, SDA boss Derek M. Tournear said during a Space Symposium event.

He hopes industry will latch onto plans to field rapidly upgradable batches of satellites and grow the new military constellation every two years. If SDA’s plans for deploying hundreds of satellites goes as planned, the constellation will offer DOD multiple routes to share information if some signals are jammed or systems are destroyed.

“The department has committed to filling out Tranche Zero, which is … eight [satellites] from SDA and two from [the Missile Defense Agency],” Tournear said. “Beyond that, the department is still trying to determine exactly what are the next steps.”

He hopes to have a better idea of what Tranche One will look like by May. If DOD opts to continue building out Tranche Zero’s missile-tracking capabilities instead of maturing other types of satellites like those used for space object tracking or intelligence collection, Tournear said, the military could have a persistent, regional eye on orbit to watch for ballistic missile launches by 2025. Global coverage could follow by 2027, he said.

The military plans to link SDA’s constellation to commercial satellites that offer services like imaging and internet. While the agency wants its data-transport satellites to talk directly to each other to share information, that interoperability won’t need to be baked in until Tranche One.

Tournear cautioned that other military systems—like the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites in development for missile tracking—will have to send data to ground stations before SDA can use it. That means slowing the time it takes to get that information to troops around the globe.

“We’ll also be able to take cues from those systems, and then use that to cue, for example, our medium field-of-view [missile tracking] systems,” Tournear said. “But yeah, there’ll be no direct satellite-to-satellite [communications].”

SDA differentiates itself in the military space ecosystem with a mission to move faster and with more commercial players than typical satellite and payload procurement. As DOD reforms its space enterprise and tries to avoid acquisition overlap, it will keep the nascent agency separate from the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office. SDA is set to move from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the Space Force by October 2022.

Success will depend on the agency’s ability to stick to a timeline that is tight by DOD standards. A set of upcoming experiments focused on beyond line-of-sight target and advanced missile tracking could help move the schedule along.

“We’re planning on tying our national defense space architecture into their planned demonstrations and exercises, so that we can essentially demonstrate that we can close that kill chain on the order of single-digit seconds,” Tournear said. “That’s how we’ll measure success for the combatant commanders—to be able to run their exercises, utilizing data from the SDA architecture and use that for actual fire.”