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Overview: Deep in the Tranches
Low Earth orbit satellite constellations are all the rage, but up to this point they’ve been the prospective domain of commercial entities.
Now the U.S. military wants in on the action — thanks in part to inroads made by the likes of Starlink, OneWeb, Planet
SDA is about to launch the second mission of its constellation known as the “Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture,” or PWSA.
“It’s a mesh network, an internet in space that allows you to [connect] from any point on Earth and [back down to] any point on Earth,” said Chris Winslett, Lockheed’s program director for building Transport satellites.
One key motivator behind the Pentagon building out its own constellation – rather than utilizing commercial networks that are already operational: security.
“Any time you’re using an open network, it’s always less secure … the other side is controlling the availability, the quality of service,” Winslett explained. “If you’re just a user, one of many users on another network, you’re subject to whoever owns that network and how they set their priority and the traffic that’s going to be on that network that may not be your traffic.”
PWSA is designed to be built out in tranches, with each tranche representing a new generation of satellites with increasingly greater capabilities. Each tranche also consists of two “layers:” Transport, for mesh communications, and Tracking, for targeting locations past the horizon view of assets on the ground (known as “beyond line of sight targeting”) and missile detection and tracking.
SDA is currently launching Tranche 0, the “demonstration generation” of PWSA consisting of 28 satellites – built by York, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and L3Harris
“SDA’s focus is harnessing commercial development to deliver a proliferated constellation of satellites … to build resilience, and also obviously to harness the tremendous development that’s happened in the space industry over the last number of years,” Elzea told reporters during a recent roundtable.
SDA has already begun awarding manufacturing contracts for satellites in Tranches 1 and 2 – with over $5 billion in total awards to date. In full, PWSA represents the Space Force contribution to the Pentagon’s ambitious Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) project, aimed at creating a unified network across its military branches. Satellites are one piece of that greater puzzle.
The resilient aspect of PWSA comes from having hundreds of satellites in orbit, instead of just a handful of larger and more expensive ones: An attack on one satellite does little to cripple the DOD’s network, and it’s faster and cheaper to replace a damaged or destroyed one.
It’s still early days for PWSA, with years and hundreds of satellites to go. But so far SDA’s Tranche 0 program director Mike Eppolito is “incredibly happy with the progress we made with the satellites that we have on orbit at this point.”
“I think we’ve shown industry that they can count on SDA to continue procuring these satellites, so they’re able to invest in the components that aren’t commodities at this point, and we’ll get to that fully commoditized satellite that we’re looking for,” Eppolito said.
Investing in Space programming note: I will be out next week, but back the following for the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris!