By Cat Hofacker|May 2019
Combining the military might of the Pentagon with the innovation of the commercial space industry: That’s the task for Fred Kennedy as the first director of the U.S. Space Development Agency, an organization created in March to develop the country’s “next-generation military space capabilities,” as SDA’s founding memo puts it. Kennedy plans to do this by streamlining the development process for new satellites, equipment and other capabilities yet to be specified. He has between now and Sept. 30 to put together a proposal for this new space architecture and he has some big plans. For details, I sat down with Kennedy at the Space Symposium last month to talk about SDA.
For many years we’ve known that peer competitors like Russia and China were building capabilities to deny or degrade our ability to operate in space. Well, that’s ramped up. And furthermore, they’re building capabilities to indirectly get after our space assets, which means that they’re building out systems in other domains that evade our space sensors, or attempt to at least. This is a troubling trend, and it’s one that we should attempt to stop. What I would tell you, though, is that we have a culture in the space community which is not well-postured to solve this problem. We’ve been living in sanctuary for so long, even though we know it’s possible to build space weapons and other things. We’ve been driven by a desire for what I would call hyper-reliability and ultimate performance. And we do that at the expense of cost and schedule.
Changing the game
We want to put up capability early, as early as 2022. We want to go up in two-year upgrades after that. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. I’m going to be less concerned about hitting a performance target and more concerned about hitting the schedule. So more minimum viable product to start, and then showing how we can improve on that in successive iterations. Really trying to innovate over and over and over again. Our innovation cycle now is measured in decades. We’re flying focal planes on SBIRS [missile warning satellites] that were basically designed in the ’80s and ’90s. That’s not right. We shouldn’t be doing that. We need to get out of that mode and figure out how to put our best technology forward quickly. I think this is the right way to go forward with that.
I’m not going to be requirements-based; I’m going to be threat-based. I’m not going to wait for someone to validate the need for the capability; I’m going to get in front of that. I’m going to talk to the intel community; I’m going to talk to the war fighters in a combatant command and say, “What are you faced with right now, and then how can I respond to that now?” As opposed to giving you capability a decade hence. I don’t want to do that, or even five years hence. I want to put up capability in a couple of years and see how it works, and do it again, and then do it again. In the same way that we managed to make it work with these things, right, with these phones, with computers, I think the space community is ripe to go solve this problem. We have the tech; we now have a sense that we can do mass production. We can apply mass production to spacecraft and theoretically to payloads and other things. Why not try that? That’s what SDA’s about.
Not just the Space Force runner-up
I think the bottom line for Space Force is: In the same way we need “air mindedness” to stand up an air force, you need people who understand air power, I think now you need people who understand space power to go stand up a separate entity to go work that problem. In terms of what SDA’s going to do, we’re trying to step back and say, “All right, we’ve been building systems for the Air Force, the Army, Navy, IC — everybody — a certain way for a long time.” Whether or not the Space Force is inaugurated soon, the idea that we need to go fix this front end of development is still there. That problem set remains.
Filling in the gaps
We’re going after every piece of the mission space you would expect, maybe even a few more, and we’re trying to go after gap areas that are not being addressed by legacy systems. So, for example, we’re looking at tracking missile threats, which current systems have a hard time doing today. We’re going after hypersonic systems and other things [for which] detection and track is a bear.
But we all agree that the key element of all this is to have a global low-latency communications capability. We’re calling it the “space transport layer,” but it’s a comms and data transport layer that would reside in LEO, that would be proliferated, that may leverage a significant amount of commercial input to get there. I’m not saying it’s necessarily somebody’s megaconstellation. It might be a government constellation. But we would really try to leverage as much of the investment and work that’s going into new space right now as we can.
Inspired by commercial innovation
If I can lock, stock and barrel take something off the shelf and use it, I would be crazy not to. If it’s just sitting there and it meets my need, let’s go. Let’s just go do it. But if it requires a little bit of ruggedization, or if we’re looking at a band that’s not quite what we had hoped for, then yeah, let’s go fix that and move on. But we want to do it in a way that allows us to mass produce capability.
Yeah, we are going to make mistakes. I’m not even going to try to tell you that we’re not. We are going to make mistakes, and we’re going to fall short on certain aspects, but the whole point of this is to say, “All right, let’s take a look at what we did in 2022.” Who else is putting up capability that quickly? No one. So, we’ll take what we learned in 2022, and within two years, we’re going to put up a different suite of capabilities that will do better.