SDA Working To Avoid ‘Vendor Lock’ In Tracking, Transport Layer Awards

Credit: SDA

The Space Development Agency (SDA) wants to ensure that all bidders will have an equal shot at awards under the upcoming Tranche 1 Tracking Layer (T1TL) decision, though another recent SDA award has shown the “optics” of incumbents getting a leg up.

Solicitations are due April 20 and an award is expected in June for the T1TL, expected to be 28 satellites in low Earth orbit. It is planned to launch in May 2025 for missile warning and tracking. SDA Director Derek Tournear says he expects six to 10 bidders to participate.

“It’s SDA’s model that we will always have an open competition for every layer, for every tranche to make sure that that market continues to grow, because we do not want to get stuck in a vendor-lock situation,” Tournear says. 

In February, SDA awarded a combined $1.8 billion to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and York Space Systems for the Tranche 1 transport layer. Of those, two companies—York and Lockheed—were also winners for the Tranche 0 transport layer.

“It could easily be intuited that, OK, if you win one layer then you’re a shoo-in for the rest,” Tournear says. “I will say that is not the case. The competition is fierce. The commercial sector and the industrial base is broad.” 

For the Tranche 1 award, it was not originally clear that the incumbent companies were No. 1 and No. 2 as the source selection process proceeded. SDA ultimately decided to go with three companies. But if the agency had decided on two, it is not clear that one of the incumbents would have been selected, Tournear says.

“That just goes to show that industry continues to push,” Tournear says. “We’ll have these competitions and we’ll treat them fairly and we’ll continue to push forward.”

For the upcoming T1TL award, there are two incumbents that were awarded under the preceding Tranche 0 Tracking Layer—SpaceX and L3Harris. Though they do have more mature technology, they are not the only ones.

For example, there are companies already working with Space Systems Command for their medium Earth orbit tracking system, and that could “give them a leg up,” he says. Raytheon Technologies also has been working with DARPA on the Blackjack program and that helps them. 

“So there’s a broad industrial base that I think gives enough competition that the people that won Tranche 0 cannot be assumed to be the winners of Tranche 1,” Tournear says. 

SDA in October 2021 rescinded its original request for proposals for T1TL, reissuing it under so-called Other Transaction Authorities to try to avoid a perception that its competition was limited. After the original RFP was released in September 2021, Maxar Technologies filed a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office claiming it unfairly limited competition.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.