Space Development Agency (SDA)


The Space Development Agency's (SDA) mission is to rapidly develop and deploy a threat-driven, next-generation space architecture to counter near-peer efforts to contest or deny American space-based systems. The SDA, which is separate from Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force, was established in March 2019 and announced by acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan as a response to “continuing actions by our near-peer competitors, China and Russia,” that he said may be attempts to “deny, degrade or destroy US space capabilities.”

The National Defense Strategy1 (NDS) acknowledges that space is vital to the US way of life, national security, and modern warfare. In an era of renewed great power competition with an emergent China and a resurgent Russia, maintaining our advantage in space is critical to winning these long-term strategic competitions. Potential adversaries seek to undermine this goal by employing strategies that exploit real or perceived vulnerabilities in current and planned National Security Space systems. In addition, these potential adversaries are developing and demonstrating multi-domain threats to national security much faster than we can deploy responsive space-based capabilities.

The Acting Secretary of Defense officially established the SDA on March 12, 2019. The new agency’s charter was to rapidly develop and deploy a threat-driven, next-generation space architecture to counter near-peer efforts to contest or deny our space-based systems. To accomplish this, SDA adopted an agile approach to rapidly develop a proliferated, multi-functional constellation of small satellites to counter current and emerging threats. SDA intends to leverage investments made by the private sector in space capabilities (e.g., hardware and software reuse, leasing of services), as well as industry best practices (e.g., mass production techniques for spacecraft buses, sensors, and user terminals). Using a spiral development model, SDA will maintain its flexibility to allow integration of hardware and software upgrades to address emerging threats on short timelines (less than two years between upgrades).

SDA is focused on the eight essential capabilities described in the Department’s August 2018 Report on Organizational and Management Structure for the National Security Space Components of the Department of Defense. These capabilities include:

  1. Persistent global surveillance for advanced missile targeting,
  2. Indications, warning, targeting, and tracking for defense against advanced missile threats,
  3. Alternate positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) for a GPS-denied environment,
  4. Global and near-real time space situational awareness,
  5. Development of deterrent capability,
  6. Responsive, resilient, common ground-based space support infrastructure (e.g., ground stations and launch capability),
  7. Cross-domain, networked, node-independent battle management command, control, and communications (BMC3), including nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3),
  8. Highly-scaled, low-latency, persistent, artificial-intelligence-enabled global surveillance.

SDA developed a notional suite of capabilities to include multiple constellations (or “layers”) addressing the eight priorities listed above. Each layer provides an integral and integrated capability to the overall architecture. The SDA’s notional architecture is predicated on the availability of a ubiquitous data and communications transport layer and assumes the use of small, mass-produced satellites (50-500 kg) and associated payload hardware and software. The SDA is considering the use of transport layer spacecraft as substrates for other layers, allowing for the integration of appropriate payloads based on each layer’s needs. Seven layers are proposed:

  1. Space Transport Layer: Global, persistent, low-latency data and communications proliferated "mesh" network to provide 24x7 global communications.
  2. Tracking Layer: Indications, warning, targeting, and tracking of advanced missile threats. 3. Custody Layer: 24x7, all-weather custody of all identified time-critical targets.
  3. Deterrence Layer: Space Situational Awareness (SSA) of, and rapid access to, the cislunar volume.
  4. Navigation Layer: Alternate Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) for GPS-denied environments.
  5. Battle Management Layer: Distributed, artificial intelligence-enabled Battle Management Command, Control and Communications (BMC3), to include self-tasking, self-prioritization (for collection), on-board processing, and dissemination, supporting delivery of perishable space sensor-derived data products directly to tactical users.
  6. Support Layer: Mass-producible ground command and control capabilities, user terminals, and rapid-response launch services (small- to medium-class).

Despite consistent bipartisan pushback and international criticism, the US Department of Defense’s newest space agency may see drastic budget increases in the coming years as it looks to deploy some 1,200 satellites. The Pentagon has requested a total of nearly $11 billion in funding for its controversial US Space Development Agency (SDA) over the next five years, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg in October 2019.

While the agency received $150 million for its set-up, documents filed last month revealed the Pentagon is now requesting a modest budget bump up to approximately $259 million for fiscal year 2021. In the following years, however, SDA officials wish to see their budget balloon to $1.1 billion in 2022, $1.9 billion in 2023 and $3.67 billion in 2024, reported Bloomberg. The increase does appear to taper off at fiscal year 2025, with the Defense Department requesting $3.68 billion.

According to the agency, it intends to use the funds to build and launch its “notional space architecture,” a six-layer constellation of hundreds of satellites designed to target Russian and Chinese weapons. The architectural layout of the agency’s military satellite setup will consist of a layer which tracks and targets missiles threats in addition to a custody layer which will provide “all-weather custody of all identified time-critical targets,” according to the Space Development Agency. In addition, a deterrence layer will detect and track objects in space to prevent satellites from undergoing collisions while a navigation layer will provide navigation services in the case that GPS is unavailable.

It will also include a command, control and communications network that utilizes artificial intelligence. A space transport layer will be responsible for providing around the clock global communications while the support layer will include “mass-producible ground command and control capabilities, user terminals, and rapid-response launch services.” According to the SDA, each layer will “provide an integral and integrated capability to the overall architecture.”

It’s unclear how the Pentagon’s budget request will be received, as the SDA has seen drastic changes in leadership and been the subject of criticism domestically and internationally in the past seven months. Retired Air Force Colonel Fred Kennedy, who also served as a senior policy adviser within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s National Security and International Affairs division, exited his role as head of the SDA in June. Space expert Derek Tournear has filled the position as acting director since then, but the agency has yet to announce a new head and has drawn bipartisan criticism from Congress.

Reps. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Mac Thornberry (R-TX) of the House Armed Services Committee issued a letter to the SDA on 03 July 2019 that cited an "apparent change of direction" as their reason behind denying a Pentagon request for $15 million in funding for the space agency.

Join the mailing list