SDA’s 2020 Plans Take Shape

Date: Jan. 22, 2020 | Outlet: Air Force Magazine | By Rachel S. Cohen

The Space Development Agency in 2020 is embarking on its first full year of work to put up potentially thousands of satellites that aim to share combat data in new ways and better protect US interests.

After standing up in March 2019, weathering leadership turmoil, and eventually reaching out to industry to start shaping its design ambitions, SDA boss Derek Tournear said Jan. 21 he expects the agency will float a full acquisition plan this spring for piecing together its own systems with what other organizations are developing.

SDA has issued two notices so far this year. One is a broad call for suggestions of concepts, technologies, and capabilities that could improve upon what SDA already has planned, or that would address problems affecting service members.

The other seeks ideas for an open-architecture set of standards for optical intersatellite links. That means satellites could share information no matter what kind of hardware or programming language they use. The links should also be able to tell relatively how far apart SDA’s satellites are at any given time.

Those documents are among the first steps SDA will take in 2020 to progress toward demonstrations next year. The agency envisions seven layers of space systems will start launching for operations in 2022, with more added every two years.

Tournear said a solicitation for the data transport layer, a network of satellites that can quickly send beyond-line-of-sight targeting information on assets like mobile missile launchers, should be out in the spring. An industry notice on an advanced missile tracking layer, bolstered by the Missile Defense Agency’s work, would follow soon after.

“Our focus is getting the capabilities out there for beyond-line-of-sight targeting and advanced missile detection and tracking, because that’s what the [National Defense Strategy] said were the most important,” Tournear said.

In practice, the data transport network could help see threats that airborne sensors can’t approach closely enough, Tournear said. For example, if the sensing system finds a mobile missile launcher, those satellites could autonomously tell other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to collect more detailed information about it to form a targeting plan. The transport layer would then send targeting coordinates to a weapon system like a fighter jet, ship, or long-range Army munitions, where a human could decide whether to fire, he said.

Tournear added that a tracking layer could detect when a hypersonic weapon launches and track its path using overhead persistent infrared sensors. Satellites and their algorithms would also create targeting coordinates for that weapon so the US military could defend against it.

“None of that capability exists, so those scenarios would not be possible without this technology,” he said.

The agency may share its targeting information via a tactical data link used by others in the military, like Link 16. The armed forces could use SDA’s transport layer to target enemies under joint all-domain command and control, which is trying to connect military assets more effectively, Tournear suggested.

SDA will also ask for proposals on data fusion technology in the late spring and ground system integration in the summer.

Tournear wants to build out global satellite coverage, using the Air Force’s National Security Space Launch infrastructure and contracts, by 2026.