The Call is Coming from Inside the House! SDA and the DoD
Sure, most people reading this probably haven’t seen a wired phone. Or, if they have, it was a museum exhibit. In the spirit of Halloween, however…SDA should get out of the house–if it can.
A few weeks ago, the Space Development Agency’s (SDA) director, Derek Tournear, experienced an inevitable truth that author Upton Sinclair once observed:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
Sinclair’s observation applies to all genders or organizations. If a person or organization’s reason for being (and being rewarded) is questioned, then either one is incentivized not to try to discern the points of view supporting those questions. We see this in politics and the interplay between the SDA and the organization purportedly supporting it–the Department of Defense (DoD).
Who is Martin Riggs?
Based on that observation, some parts of the DoD aren’t super-excited about the seeming success of the SDA so far, according to Tournear’s LinkedIn post:
“Recently, I was told to stop playing the role of “bad cop” on behalf of the Space Development Agency and our mission. It was suggested that I might damage relationships among my peers.”
So, first, it’s unclear what Tournear, or the person telling him, means with the words “bad cop.” Bad cop implies there was also a role for playing “good cop” and that the focus of both is a criminal. It would then seem that Tournear is missing a counterpart to make this work. Who is the good cop? Is there a criminal in DoD acquisitions? Is someone behaving criminally? Is it the organization that’s behaving so?
Also, both the good and bad cops interplay with each other to get what they want from the criminal. It’s not clear in Tournear’s conversation that he’s a Martin Riggs to a Roger Murtaugh. Hopefully, he’s not facing the DoD equivalent of Mr. Joshua (although that would make this story more interesting).
Based on Tournear’s post, however, it’s clear that he thinks some people/organizations are pushing back against him and the SDA from within the DoD. Instead of rocking the boat with new ways of getting spacecraft deployed, they would love for him to sit and be quiet–despite the seeming progress the SDA is making. Friends in the right places are more important than the mission.
This scenario is not surprising, as A LOT of stakeholders make plenty of money using the old acquisition processes for space stuff. Those processes increase a military project’s time and budget. When someone endangers the latter, the knives come out: bosses are called, lawmakers suddenly become aware, editorials are penned, etc.
To be fair, the old way usually delivered the goods–eventually–and they usually even worked fine. However, the technology fielded by the old way of procuring satellites was decades old because of a usually blown schedule. And then people would realize the ground system needed funding to be put in place, too.
These programs were careers for a lot of people. The SDA’s goal of fielding 1000 satellites, with its two-year upgrade cycles, is not intended as a career. Instead, Tourneau notes, it’s to give U.S. warfighters a fighting edge on the battlefield on a schedule closer to “the now” rather than 10-20 years in the future. With the old way, adversaries could count on U.S. warfighting tools being delivered much later and not worry about upgraded U.S. capabilities. It wouldn’t be surprising if adversarial nations are calling their U.S. proxies to instigate pushback because the SDA is moving too quickly to predict and counter.
Starting Small and a Real-life Example
How is the SDA doing, anyway? We know that at least 23 SDA satellites were deployed in 2023 (as of mid-October). They are part of a “proof-of-concept” series of satellites the SDA calls Tranche 0 for the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA) constellation. Part of the concept, delivering satellites quickly and for less cost, seems to have been achieved. The satellite deliveries took a little longer, but pandemics and parts shortages appear to be more to blame than contract processes.
The total cost of those 23 satellites was less than one AEHF bird acquired the old way. Those 23 were a combination of missile tracking (4) and data relay satellites (19). The satellite selection shows that the SDA is leveraging changes from the smallsat sector. It’s contracting with smallsat manufacturers for satellites (or legacy companies with smallsat subsidiaries).
It’s also leveraging launch market changes, contracting with SpaceX for its Falcon 9 (which made certain congresscritters anxious). The launches might be the least amount of money the DoD has ever paid for a rocket with the Falcon 9’s record and capability–$75 million each. However, the PWSA is not just about the low costs and fielding speeds. Without the SDA deploying a single satellite, most of the concerns levied against the PWSA were answered by an outsider: Starlink.
Before going into how, it’s worth bringing up the following 2019 quote from Heather Wilson, the United States Air Force secretary at the time:
“Launching hundreds of cheap satellites into theater as a substitute for the complex architectures where we provide key capabilities to the warfighter will result in failure on America’s worst day if relied upon alone.”
That has not aged well. I am not mentioning it to point and laugh at her small-mindedness but to demonstrate what others were whispering in her ear (who are still there, apparently). Again, the U.S. has spent plenty of money–and much more time–to put those “key capabilities” she references into place. But Starlink seems to be working in her “worst day” scenario–and being relied upon alone (albeit with significant intelligence help from allies).
Specifically, Ukraine used the commercial internet constellation to reestablish communications for its people and against the invaders with great effect. I discussed some details earlier this year in “Imbalance of Space Power: Russia and Ukraine.” It’s the strangest thing to see a nation with virtually no space assets use space to effectively fight against Russia, which was supposed to be a great power with comprehensive space assets.
Starlink wasn’t even a constellation that long ago. It was still beta-testing its service in 2021. It’s a general internet relay system, not dedicated like a military communication system tends to be. But it’s rebutting those arguments SDA’s opponents used when the agency first floated PWSA.
Network latency doesn’t seem to have impacted Ukraine’s efforts negatively (or maybe Ukraine’s people have worked around those challenges). Jamming the Starlink satellites seems to be a high-effort/low-return strategy now. A plan to destroy thousands of satellites with anti-satellite missiles seems to add “high expense” to those two words. Adversaries are now scrambling to find other ways to counter Starlink’s impacts.
Not too shabby for a commercial constellation that started operating nearly three years ago.
The Calls Aren’t the Only Concern
Of course, the SDA’s PWSA is not even close to Starlink’s scale. It’s not ready to accomplish anything similar to Starlink’s augmentation of Ukraine’s forces. Some of that is because of the satellite deployment delays. Some, because of Federal Aviation Administration red tape.
Sometimes, the SDA complicates things by choosing technologies that aren't quite mature, such as optical communication from satellites to the ground. That tendency to use immature technologies is one of the big reasons that development through legacy acquisition programs such as SBIRS went much longer than reasonable. So, the success of PWSA is already hardly guaranteed. And those calls from within the DoD “house” to trip up the SDA and its director don’t help, either.
However, getting those proof-of-concept satellites in orbit indicates the SDA might be doing something right. Starlink provides a large glimpse into how a similarly-functioning constellation could aid the U.S. military. The relatively low costs the agency is leveraging from the smallsat industry allow more budget to remain in the SDA’s purse to provide more space capabilities to U.S. soldiers–never a bad thing.
The agency also seems to be happy with the satellites in orbit so far despite the inability to conduct some tests due to FAA processes. The SDA appears to be succeeding while quickly meeting customer needs. Why does Tournear get the cold shoulder from procurement agencies within the DoD, who ostensibly have the same goal?
The Upton Sinclair quote shows the reason why.