Podcast: Interview With Space Development Agency Director
Space Development Agency (SDA) director Derek Tournear joins Aviation Week editors on Check 6 to discuss how its system of space tracking and transport satellites will revolutionize the U.S. military and the challenges it will face along the way.
Hi and welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, the Executive Editor for Defense and Space and I'm here with Pentagon Editor, Lee Hudson, Defense Editor, Steve Trimble and a very special guest, the Head of The Pentagon Space Development Agency, Derek Tournear. We're so glad to have you with us. Back in the summer, you joined us for a fascinating webinar and we're very grateful you have some more time to sit down with us especially given all the agency has accomplished since then. Awarding contracts for the initial set of SDA transport layer satellites, tracking layer spacecraft and optical links. Maybe you can just talk a little bit about what's next for you and then we'll go on to have more questions for you.
Thank you, Jen. It's my pleasure. I'm always happy to talk about what we're focused on and what we're working on at the Space Development Agency. You're right we've been very busy. Awarded a lot of contracts and what we're essentially focused on, keep in mind, the two main capabilities that we plan on fielding are beyond line of sight targeting for time-sensitive targets. We want to be able to detect and track and target things such as mobile missile launchers and ships all from space. We want to be able to do all of that and then send those data down directly to a weapons platform. And then the second capability is to field the exact same thing, except now instead of targeting mobile missile launchers and ships, we're actually targeting hypersonic glide vehicles and new advanced missile threats. So what we're looking to do, is we're looking to put systems in place that can do those missions as rapidly as possible as early as October of 2022.
And then every two years thereafter continue to spiral and develop and put out new capabilities based on the latest technologies or the latest threats. So you're right. We have already fielded... Oh excuse me. We've already put on contract the capabilities to do the transport layer, which is the data transport to allow us to do the low latency communication that enables all of these missions, and the wide field of view, IR, infrared sensing systems that will actually detect and track the missiles. And then we can track those, send those data to transport and send them to the weapons platform. So the next steps we have are to actually put on contract the mission specific applications although that is a lot of magic has to happen in software to be able to close that kill chain. So we are currently evaluating proposals to be able to do those software applications so that we can put folks on contract to push forward and then start developing those.
And then after that it is just cranking out and making sure that the folks on contract along with our government teammates at the Naval Research Laboratory, can all perform and develop and build these systems with the goal being that these will all be launched in October of 2022. And in August of 2021, we're actually going to go out for a solicitation for the Tranche 1, which would be the satellites that we'll then launching in 2024. So that's kind of what is on our very near term and medium term horizons.
Again, thank you very much for your time today. I do like writing about The Space Development Agency when I get the chance. I write mainly about military aircraft and... But it has always been a bit frustrating to cover the space side of the military spectrum because there's so much secrecy involved with especially the intelligence community capabilities. But it's been really interesting to see the RFIs, and the documentation and your presentations. It feels like we can really write about this and understand what you want to do. To that end, there's a couple of capabilities I want to drill down on. Both on the tracking layer and the transport layer.
And you were just bringing up the tracking layer and I... That's... We've seen this development especially with those wide field of view systems and then there's this parallel activity looking at the medium field of view with the joint program that you have with the Missile Defense Agency on the hypersonic and ballistic tracking space sensor. I think I've got that acronym correctly or haven't. And just if you could talk about that. Then I do want to ask about the tracking layer next... Oh, sorry. Transport layer next, but where do things stand with the medium field of view sensor?
Certainly, certainly. Thank you Steve, because that is a very important point to make out between the wide field of view and medium field of view system. In the missile tracking layer, in order to do missile tracking for these next generation missile threats, hypersonic glide vehicles, Dem upper stages, hyper cruise missiles, we need to essentially be able to do two things. Number one, you need to be able to have full global coverage, 24-7. You need to be able to see as many raids as anyone could hope to launch anywhere on the globe and be able to detect those and track those. Now, the second thing you need to be able to do, is you need to actually be able to track those missiles with enough quality so that you can pass those data on directly to a weapons platform so they can fire on remote without relying on their own inherent capabilities and the interceptor.
And so that's why there are two distinct sets of satellites that make up the tracking layer. The tracking layer is made up of a constellation of wide-field of view satellites and that is what is now on contract with SDA for delivery. And those when they're fully populated, will give you the full global coverage and the ability to detect and track hypersonic glide vehicles and any other large launches. Now, they may not be able to give you that fire control quality that is necessary to fire on remote so that you could pass the data directly to something say as a two ages to be able to take it out. That's where the medium field of view HBTSS system comes in. And that is being run by MDA and they are in source selection right now. And their plan would be to build one or two of those in essentially the same timeframe that we are building the wide-field view system.
We would fly those all together so that we could actually show that the wide field of view system can cue the medium field view system, the medium field of view system can then send those track data to the transport satellites and the transport satellites could then send those directly down to a weapons platform. So that's how the two work together. The wide field of view gives you full global coverage, they cue the medium field view that gives you the fire control solution, to the transport mesh network satellites, who then pass it on to the weapons platforms.
It's great. And that sets up a great segue for my next question and then I can pass it on to Lee. But that's in the transport... Oh, sorry. The... Yeah. Sorry. The transport layer as you just mentioned and the technologies that you're looking at there. There's the... Air Force Research Laboratory program is doing the XVI or 16 demonstration I think in March, and that is talking about putting an Active Electronically Scanned Array Antenna, an AESA antenna, an L band in low earth orbit to transmit link 16 from aircraft or transmitters on the ground and relay them through space. At the same time, I think the plan is to translate those messages in certain cases to the IBS or the Integrated Broadcast System, where you've got a lot more receivers populated throughout the military.
And that gives you this tactical network, global tactical network, and would be a huge piece of the JADC2 or their Joint All Domain Command and Control architecture where you could literally patch together any sensor with any shooter anywhere in the world. Theoretically conceivably, right? But just to set up this [inaudible 00:09:37] If I've got that right please let me know or if I don't. But then also with this upcoming demonstration, what are the challenges involved with getting an L band AESA in low earth orbit to connect with these transmitters and receivers terrestrially and what are the prospects for doing that?
Thank you. Yes, Steve. No, you got that exactly right. XVI is an AFRL program that we are actually working extremely closely with them on. That is going to be the first space to air and space to ground demonstration of link 16. And they're actually... We're actually... Right now the current schedule is June of 21 for launch and demonstration of that satellite. But you're right. That is what makes up the backbone and essentially the... So how does that fit in with SDA? And then I'll talk about the broader picture. Just so everyone is aware, SDA we do not view ourselves as a tech development agency. That's folks like AFRL and DARPA. They do a lot of technology development. What SDA does then, is transitions their technology into a proliferated architecture. And so that's why we're working extremely closely with AFRL on XVI to make sure that that technology can be demonstrated. And then our plan on Tranche Zero, really actually of the 20 satellites that we're going to field in 2022, 6 of those will have link 16 on them based on the technology coming out of XVI.
And that's incredibly important because that is what gives you the tactical timelines that are necessary to go directly to a weapons platform. Now IBS, the Integrated Broadcast System, that is made up of two parts. That's made up of an actual very specific format of data messages that are used to transmit these signals so that everybody can get them in the same format, understand what they mean and then respond and react to those. And then the second half is, IBS is almost universally transmitted on UHF. So there's a disconnect there in our tactical down links are all going to be based on either the L band link 16 to go directly to a weapons platform or KA or laser column to go to ground or ship based platforms that can receive those data.
We are not planning at this time to actually have a UHF transmitter that can get directly IBS out to folks that are used to seeing it over UHF. So the plan there would be, we would go down either link 16 or either KA or laser column with an IBS formatted message. And then that would go down to something such as the Army's TITAN ground station which is at the battalion level and then they could rebroadcast that out via UHF, or to go down to a Navy ship and then the Navy could broadcast that out to UHF, or it could go down to one of the ABMS enabled air platforms such as GatewayONE, which is the follow on the JADC2 compliant version of the air Force's BACN program. And essentially that could receive these signals that are IBS formatted, but not over UHF, and then rebroadcast that out. And so now that brings me to JADC2. JADC2 is Joint All Domain Command and Control, or now it's actually called CJADC2. The preface C is for Combined.
The whole goal there is can we get all of these services to talk to one another, can we get different weapons platforms to talk to one another and can we have this happen on a timescale that's relevant in a fight? And so the SDA's transport layer is spelled out to be the backbone for JADC2 in space. So what our plan is to work with the air force, the army and the Navy, to make sure that whatever platforms they have can tie directly into our transport satellites and then it is up to us to make sure that we can relay those messages over our transport satellites and get those down to any other service on a tactical timeline. Now we're talking single digit seconds or less.
And so as I mentioned, for the army, essentially their project convergence is pulling in... The TITAN ground station is what's driving that and we're working to make sure that we can communicate up and down to them and then they can disseminate out to other weapons platforms that are tied into TITAN. With the air force, their AVMS system they have several different ways to tie into our platforms GatewayONE which I've mentioned. And then aperture one and radio one would be other ways. But they're... Those are all of their ABMS versions that are the air force JADC2 backbones. And then the Navy, they have specific programs on their vessels that would be able to communicate directly with our satellites so that we could in essence bridge all of the services, JADC2 messages together from space.
Now, thanks. That explains JADC2. With all these different pieces and components that we write about sometimes in isolation, it all does come together and through the SDA space architecture, it's just a critical piece of it. I really appreciate you explaining that. I'll let Lee ask the next question.
Thanks for joining us. So I wanted to switch gears a little bit and talk about what's happening on Capitol Hill or more accurately what's not happening. Congress has not passed an appropriations bill for fiscal year 2021 and the Pentagon is operating under a continuing resolution. Some are saying a continuing resolution may last until May, and I wanted to get your perspective and see how that would impact the Space Development Agency.
Yes. It obviously would have a large impact. Space Development Agency is a new agency and we're growing. And that means that under continuing resolution budget caps that [inaudible 00:16:14] Us to our fiscal year 20 budget, we are capped and under our current plan, we would hit that cap sometime in the January or February timeframe. And so up until that point we can operate and our plan is to continue to operate and push as fast as we can under that continuing resolution limit. And I'm an eternal optimist. I believe we will have a budget by then and all will be well and we will continue to push forward and deliver these capabilities on time. If there is a continuing resolution that extends beyond February, we will need to get anomaly funding to be able to keep the schedule and keep the pace of work. And so that is one thing that we are investigating.
Okay. Just to follow up on that, so it would impact your actual timeline right now, much less accelerating any of the capabilities that you're trying to create for the department?
If if two things happen. Right? If the continuing resolution goes beyond February and SDA does not get any anomaly funding... We're putting in a request to get funding above our continuing resolution limit. If both of those things happen, then yes. It would start to have an impact on our delivery.
Okay. Thank you,
Mr. Tournear I just wanted to ask a little bit, you released an RFP recently for launch services. What are you needing to get your satellites up into space? Are you looking for a large rocket that can launch multiple satellites? Are you looking to launch on a smaller space vehicle?
Yes. So the reason I say that is because is we were agnostic to how it's done. We are... We put that RFP out as a solicitation for essentially buying the delivery of orbit, of these satellites that I mentioned. The transport and tracking trunk zero satellites. Those 28 satellites, 20 transport and 8 tracking. Where we really don't care how it gets done. We gave specifics that say, "We want to populate 2 planes at 1000 kilometer orbits and we want them to launch starting in September of 2022. And all of the satellites we want them to be on orbit by March of 2023. And so whoever can come in with the best solution in technical schedule and price within those constraints, then they could be awarded." Whether people come in and say, "I can do that with two launch vehicles, one for each plane," Or, "I can do that with 10 launch vehicles, five in each plane," I'm agnostic to that. I want to see what solutions we get but we're looking at which ones have technically credible solutions that we can buy this as a service and then of course it's schedule and cost.
Thanks. And then I wanted to step back for a larger question. You have this plan and it is working in concert with JADC2, but it has this role in terms of both tracking specific military targets and tracking missile defense threats. There are also existing architectures that the air force has bigger satellites like next generation OPIR so there seems to be this hybrid con constellation that is being developed. How does the Pentagon continue to afford to support both of those going into the future?
Sure. And this is obviously an issue that's been studied a lot and Congress rightfully so has been watching this very closely because they have the same concerns. And the department has just turned in a report to Congress that is the skeleton of what would be the future OPIR architecture and spells all this out in detail. But the short version of it is as follows. Next-Gen OPIR Block 0 to be launched in 2025 is something that the nation certainly needs. We cannot afford a gap in strategic missile detection and that is going to proceed smartly and go forward. In the future, beyond Block 0, 2025 and beyond, it's the department's position that the architecture of having these high value low density satellites, the big juicy targets as General Hyten is fond of saying, to be able to do the missile warning mission is not the preferred method.
The preferred method is to go to something that is more proliferative. And that is essentially what we are demonstrating with MDA. We are demonstrating how a proliferated architecture would look, what it would look like, how it would work and what capabilities one could be expected to achieve from that. And so the department obviously is... And the nation as a whole, is extremely dependent on how these OPIR systems perform and to make sure that we can guarantee that they provide the services that the nation needs to be able to defend itself. So in that respect, the department is taking a very conservative approach. Think about it as doing monkey bars not trapeze. In other words, I'm not going to let go of one system until I have a firm grip on the other. So the department is not going to abandon the main line plans of being things such as Next-Gen OPIR Blocks 0 until it is convinced, until we [inaudible 00:23:03] Ourselves and others, that a proliferated system is just as efficient, just as effective and just as resilient.
We're not going to take the trapeze approach where you completely abandoned one and hope that you can grab the other. Right? So that's the approach because these are critical national security systems. But going forward, now we're talking 2028 and beyond, the plan is the department will be relying on different proliferated systems and these can be hybrids. So we're demonstrating everything as a proliferated Leo system. There could be a hybrid between satellites and the medium earth orbit that are providing different parts of the same mission. But the department is leaning towards a proliferated system and we do not plan on going back to this high value, low density architecture. The only way we would do that is if we completely showed that a proliferated system failed and did not work.
On that note, not that I expect anything to fail, but in terms of technology maturity, especially in the transport layer, I'm curious what your thoughts are about the readiness of this AESA technology for link 16 in space is right now. To what degree is invention necessary here versus just demonstration of existing technology? And the same goes with optical cross-links. We have seen that demonstrated on especially in the commercial world, but for something like this and in this military application, how confident are you of maturity of the technology going into this?
Good question. good question. And thank you. I forgot to get to that point when we were talking about XVI. Yeah. There's a lot of different technical challenges. I would say that of the ones I rank them as follows. Number one is actually the... The one that keeps me up most at night is when we're talking about passing large amounts of data with extremely low latency across these military networks on essentially commoditized satellites. These satellites are on the order of $10-20 million a piece. The biggest challenge, technical challenge from my perspective that I see is the ability to be able to do the encryption necessary at the price point and at the speeds necessary to apply at these. So that's a key technical challenge that we're working with folks to solve. And DARPA has been plowing a lot of ground on that aspect to provide technical solutions.
The second one that that is difficult is this optical cross-link technology that you mentioned. And it's not so much that optical cross-links are that difficult. It's that to be able to do it in a commoditized package that's fairly affordable, that's new, we're pushing that. That's been demonstrated commercially and there's been a lot of advances there. So I think that we have a pretty strong solution. Our plan is to actually launch in demo. We're doing a demonstration. DARPA, AFRL and SDA are going to fly a demonstration. That launch window opens in December of this year to be able to demonstrate a commoditized optical cross-link. The real key there is to make sure that everyone building these commoditized optical cross-links can talk to one another. And so we've set up a test bed at the Naval research laboratory to make sure that people can verify their interoperability with one another before actually going to flight because that's a key thing. If you have cross links from different vendors, we want to make sure they can talk to one another.
The third point, the L band AESA, this is not necessarily a showstopper if it doesn't come to fruition. And I'll explain that in a minute, but the reasons I think it will come to fruition are as follows. The technology with, with doing an L band AESA, you're dealing with a little larger components, a little more commoditized. It's not as difficult to do an AESA at that band as it is some of the higher bands. So that's more commoditized. It's also being the... It's also the way the air force Vanguard or the space force Vanguard program NTS-3, Navigation Test Satellite 3, is doing a lot of development on different L band AESAs. So there's just a lot of work that's being done at the research level to develop this. I think that the technical challenges of that are being burned down but now when I say that that's actually not a showstopper for us...
To be able to do the link 16 connection to space and to a link 16 airborne network, there's a lot of different technical challenges there. The first of which is the link 16 is really designed on this 300 nautical mile limit. And so you need to be able to make sure that you can... And it's also a managed network, which means that there's a network manager that decides who can plug in and out of that network. Well, if you have a proliferated Leo system, you're going to have satellites coming in and out of different AORs link 16 networks rapidly. And so to be able to make sure that you can manage that and do all the networking, that's actually the most difficult part. Second challenge obviously is the doppler associated with the speeds that are... The relative speeds between orbital velocities and what you just typically have in the air to air comm, is significantly different. So that actually has to be taken out in the processing on the electronics for the link 16 radios. And so that's another technical challenge.
What the AESA... What the L band AESA buys you, is it buys you the ability to plug into multiple of these link 16 networks and users from a single satellite without a lot of steering. And that is clearly something that, that you want to have, but we could live with one satellite at a time to one link 16 user for the near term. So that's not going stop us until we really get to the point where we want to proliferate hundreds of these and want to be able to talk to thousands of users.
Steve, I think you're on mute.
Sorry. I think I... Yeah. Sorry about that. No... Thanks for that. And that was a fantastic explanation. But I didn't have any extra follow-up questions after that. If Lee or Jen has one, feel free to throw in.
I do. I spoke with Bill Gadol from L3Harris, and he talked about for their offering, that they're using their own obstacle cross-links instead of using the one that the Blackjack program is developing at DARPA. And so I was just curious, we haven't heard much from SpaceX, are they using the ones from DARPA or are they using a different product?
I don't want to talk to other... To the primes and their subcontractor relationships because that is still proprietary at this point until they want to come out and say exactly what they're using. The only thing I'm going to say is that the ones that we are planning on flying and getting that launch window open since December, those are some that are being developed in coordination with the DARPA Blackjack program. What we are... What we have based our Tranche Zero standard on is based on the technologies that were developed under the DARPA Blackjack program. And so that is what we are going to use as our NRL hardware and software in the loop test bed.
But beyond that, I don't care if someone is using something from the same company that DARPA Blackjack or whether they're using it from another commercial laser comm house as long as they can show that they can plug into the network both physically, meaning that they're using the same actual encoding on the laser wave form and obviously the same frequency, and then networking, meaning that once the signal is received and understood, it is of the same network format that it could be routed via our network manager, then I don't have strong opinions on which optical cross-links are used.
I had one more question for you. What has enabled you to move so rapidly through the process of acquisition which has notoriously been a problem for folks at the Pentagon for many years?
It's actually just a difference in what you value. And I'll talk to that a little bit and the pros and cons of that because we're going through some of the cons now which I'll highlight. The pros are our values are we value agility and speed and so it's the innovator's dilemma. When you're an established entity and you have a main line customer, established customer, your goal is to develop a product that gives a low risk incremental solution for that main line customer. And so what you do that's what you value. And you're going to develop things based on that, and that's going to set your processes and your resources. What that means is typically when a program is developed within the department, there are two main competing forces. The first one typically comes from DOD cap and others. And it says, "Okay, look, we need to make sure that this is as affordable as possible." And then the second one typically comes from the requirements shop and the program managers. And that says, "We want this to be as technically higher performance as we think technology could reasonably be expected to achieve over the future."
And so that gives you the highest performing metric competing against the lowest cost metric and you will develop your program based on that. And there's a lot of ins and outs there. But then what you drop is you drop a lot of the what the war fighter really needs, and the war fighter needs something in their hands immediately. And that's the speed aspect. And that's what we value. We value... The customers that we're going after are all of the war fighters that are tied directly to the combatant commanders. We want to make sure that we can satisfy as many combatant commanders as quickly as we can. And so that's what we value. And that's... We do all of our acquisition based on that. Now what that means is we have a very flat organization, we have a very rapid way to release requests for proposals and a very rapid method to be able to do the evaluation and put those on award. We've been extremely successful on that.
Now, one of the things that I have always talked about, because I think people really get confused of what magic process is there that... It's not a magic process. Everything we've used has been far based contracting. We haven't used OTAs and there's pros and cons to that. Most people in the government like OTAs because... I'll be honest, because they limit your vulnerability to protest. Okay? So we elected not to do that because historically OTAs come with with other trade-offs that do not give you the ability to get the best teammate arrangements and they also limit competition. So we elected to go with complete far based contracting and just push it as fast as possible. And we demonstrated that you can actually go from an RFP to a contract award in four months for fairly regularly. But what that does do is since we use far based contracting, then it does open yourself up to people who want to protest. And on transport we were essentially lucky we did well. We had a good source selection and everything went well and there were no protests.
On tracking we did well. We got the contracts awarded on time, we had a very excellent source selection with very defensible results but now we do have some protests on tracking. There were two entities that were offers that were not selected, Airbus and Raytheon, and they're protesting the awards to SpaceX and L3Harris. So we're going through that now and that is... We're hoping the GAO has a rapid resolution of this. We're working to resolve that as quickly as possible, but that is an area that because we use far based contracting, we now have to push to make sure that the protests do not cause any delays.
Okay. Well, that's unfortunately about all the time that we have today. Thank you very much for joining us. I hope to have you back again sometime next year where we can check in on your progress. For all the listeners out there, please join us again next week for another edition of Check 6, which is available for download on iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play. Also, if you like what you're listening to, please give us a positive review. We'd love to hear your feedback.