LOS ANGELES — Frank Turner, technical director of the Space Development Agency (SDA), is a man with a lot of problems, and he doesn’t mind talking about them.
“I’m not standing here today giving you answers,” he told an audience of satellite industry executives at the CyberLEO conference. “I’m standing here today giving you problems. I’m hoping you’ll come back with the answers.”
SDA’s problems, Turner said during the May 13 keynote, are the problems of its customers, the warfighter on the front line — whether that’s in a foxhole, at a forward operating base, or as part of a littoral expeditionary force.
“Our customers are the warfighters. We work with the warfighter and try to solve their problems. We work with you to try to take in your solutions [to those problems] and integrate them across the national defense space architecture.”
The SDA — slogan “Semper citius,” which translates to “always faster” in Latin — was founded, Turner said, “to solve a problem that the warfighter has — they do not have reliability at present on the space layer for tactical purposes. It’s the whole idea behind SDA. We’re solving a tactical problem.”
In military parlance, “tactical purposes” means those associated with frontline units fighting or maneuvering with the enemy. Strategic purposes, on the other hand, includes things like ensuring communications up and down the chain of command, from the rear echelon to the front line, or detecting the launch of and intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles.
SDA is starting with the Transport Layer — a globe-spanning Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation that can move sensor and targeting data anywhere in the world it’s needed, giving frontline units access to imagery from overhead spy satellites, for instance. SDA will build its constellations with “spiral development” — launching its satellites in waves, or tranches, each more advanced than the last.
The first experimental wave of 20 SDA satellites in the transport layer — Tranche 0 — will start launching in September, Turner said, after the contracts were signed in August 2020. These satellites will cost an average of $14.1 million each, representing a huge increase in speed and a decrease in cost from conventional military satellites, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars and can take a decade or more to buy, design, build, and launch.
As the Tranche 0 satellites are being built, the agency has already signed contracts for the much larger, operational second wave of 126 LEO satellites in Tranche 1.
“Every two years, we’re going to fly something and demonstrate it and then we’re going to deliver it,” he said. “We’re flying, we’re building, we’re buying all at the same time, and we’re going to keep going like that,” said Turner.
This non-linear approach, and the speed at which it was moving, meant the agency had to be flexible and agile, Turner added.
“We may not launch exactly what we said we were going to launch two years previously, but there will be a minimum viable product for the warfighter that will accomplish what the warfighter needs,” he said.
He cited the optical inter-satellite links the agency had planned to use to create the mesh network, which would allow the transport layer to quickly move data where it was needed.
“We honestly thought we were going to have a vast number of optical inter-satellite links from a number of companies. Turns out maybe they’re not quite ready, and we’re narrowing down. We will still … demonstrate for the warfighter what it means to have low latency data from point A to point B at the tactical edge. But we may not do it with the diversity of optical satellite links that we thought we were going to. Now, that [diversity of OISL] is going to come along in Tranche 1,” he said.
That agility and flexibility had to characterize the agency’s attitude to security as well, Turner said.
“Because we’re connecting to existing warfighter tactical data links, like Link 16. We’re connecting to other warfighter data links, we’re connecting to commercial constellations, we’re connecting to a myriad of ground stations. We’ve got a problem space [and an attack surface] that’s growing exponentially. We need your help to figure out how to fill it in and make it work.”
Turner promised SDA would be open to all kinds of ideas. “If you’ve got a good idea about something that you think will help from a cyber perspective or another perspective, I will make time to have the conversation. I can’t promise it will go anywhere, but I’ll make time. So please, if you have ideas, come see us.”
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