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New Space Development Agency to Focus on Space-Based Sensor Layer

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The Pentagon officially established the Space Development Agency March 12 under the direction of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, and will first focus on developing the architecture for a low-Earth orbit sensor layer, a senior department official said March 13.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan signed a memo Tuesday establishing the SDA as a separate department agency and naming its first director: Fred Kennedy, who currently serves as the director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Tactical Technology Office.

DARPA’s Blackjack program (Image: DARPA)

“The SDA will unify and integrate efforts across the department to define, development and field the novel and innovative solutions necessary to outpace advancing threats,” Shanahan wrote in the memo, which was obtained by Defense Daily.

To that end, the SDA’s first area of focus will be the “development of a proliferated low-Earth orbit sensor and communications transport layer,” in partnership with agencies such as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin said at a Wednesday media roundtable at the Pentagon.

Griffin emphasized that that type of effort is not currently being addressed within department agencies to a significant degree and that “the need has existed for way longer than we should have allowed that need to exist without addressing it.”

DARPA’s Blackjack program is likely to play a role in that effort, he noted. The program seeks to leverage commercial satellite buses and link them to military payloads, with the goal of demonstrating elements for a global high-speed network in LEO to provide the Pentagon with resilient and persistent coverage.

Griffin anticipates working with a variety of commercial partners on the LEO sensor layer, saying “I would be very surprised if there weren’t several [providers] with whom we would be involved down the line.”

The goal of the SDA is not to duplicate efforts or programs already undertaken by agencies such as DARPA, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) or the Space Rapid Capabilities Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Griffin said.

“I am not personally trying to shake up anybody or anything. … During my tenure, we are going to be focused on new efforts,” he said.

The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2020 presidential budget request includes $150 million in operations and maintenance to stand up the Space Development Agency, more than what was allocated for the new U.S. Space Command combatant command and the U.S. Space Force branch under the Air Force, combined. Griffin declined to comment on budget specifics until the department’s budget justification books are released March 18.

Griffin said that the SDA will initially be made up of a mix of around 100 civilian and military personnel, and be located at the Pentagon. The March 12 directive indicates that the goal is to eventually house the SDA under the Space Force, pending congressional approval of the new branch.

However, he expects that the Space Development Agency will continue to exist should Congress decline to approve the Space Force. The SDA does not require congressional approval.



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