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Digital Battlespace

SDA embraces its role as 'constructive disruptor'

2nd June 2021 - 13:00 GMT | by Jason Sherman in New York

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How the Space Development Agency hopes the transport layer will work in Tranche 0 of its future architecture. (Photo: Space Development Agency)

The US Space Development Agency is working to a fast tempo as it prepares a prototype LEO constellation to deliver overarching capabilities for frontline personnel.

In March 2021, the Space Development Agency (SDA) marked its second anniversary working to be a 'constructive disruptor' in delivering on-orbit US military capabilities.

The agency is advancing its project to proliferate satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) and rapidly adding new capabilities to the constellation every two years. 

The SDA is creating a parallel track for developing and fielding space capabilities, alongside the more traditional low-risk, incremental approach adopted by the US Space Force Space Systems Command to delivering satellites to combat customers. 

'We do not take a set of requirements and say "we are going to develop a programme, we're going to deliver that programme, we're going to slip schedule or increase costs until we hit the requirements of that programme",' SDA Director Derek Tournear said on 12 May.

'No, what we do is we say there are some overarching capabilities that we want to get to the warfighter,' he added. 

'And we're going to follow an incremental approach, based on what technology is available today and what the current threats are and get those up every two years — a new tranche, a new spiral — and we'll just continue to increase the state of the art and the capabilities following that model.'

The SDA focuses on the most urgent needs set forth by US combatant commanders and service chiefs, by delivering a mesh network to provide low-latency data transport in space for advanced missile tracking and beyond line-of-sight (BLoS) targeting of land and maritime targets.

This architecture would include seven LEO layers eventually comprising more than 500 satellites, including: a custody layer; a battle management layer; a navigation layer; a deterrence layer to detect hostile action in deep space; a tracking layer; a transport layer; and a support layer. 

'We're going to follow an incremental approach, based on what technology is available today and what the current threats are and get those up every two years'

Derek Tournear, Space Development Agency director

In January 2021, the SDA received two satellites for launch nine months after receiving funding; these assets, damaged after delivery, have since been repaired and are scheduled to be carried to orbit in June. 

The agency has also been designated by the Pentagon as the lead entity for the proliferated LEO Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) backbone.

In addition, the SDA has awarded contracts for all segments associated with the first of five planned spirals, dubbed Tranche 0 or ‘Warfighter Immersion’ which is scheduled to be on-orbit by 2022 with 28 satellites (20 for the transport layer and eight tracking). 

This batch of capabilities will demonstrate that the network can be formed and data can be moved across the constellation, SDA hopes. 

'The whole goal of Warfighter Immersion is to allow the warfighter to start to use these data in their already planned exercises, so they develop the procedures that they will use when Tranche 1 comes online in 2024,' Tournear said.

Tranche 1 will be an initial warfighting capability, providing regional persistence for tactical data links, advanced missile detection, and BLoS targeting.

Tranche 2, planned for FY2026, aims to deliver what the SDA calls 'global persistence' for all capabilities in Tranche 1. Tranche 3, scheduled for FY2028, calls for advanced improvements over Tranche 2, including better sensitivity for missile tracking, better targeting for BLoS, additional navigation capabilities and protected RF communications. 

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