WASHINGTON – Long before the Space Development Agency awarded its first contract, officials knew that building a diverse, strong supply base would be an important part of its plan to produce and field constellations of hundreds of small satellites.
The agency’s vision of using these widespread constellations to increase and strengthen the resilience of traditional US Department of Defense systems requires a more flexible approach by government and industry, officials told C4ISRNET. So, from the very beginning, the SDA leadership challenged its top executives to find ways to encourage competition between their vendor base and incorporate redundancies into their strategies.
Although this approach did not fully protect the SDA from supply problems, it helped the agency and its main contractors mitigate major failures in the COVID-19 supply chain observed in the space industry. In some cases, companies have common parts to help ease bottlenecks.
“One provider had pre-radio stations they didn’t need until the second launch, and the other provider had optical cross-links that came ahead of schedule,” SDA Director Derek Tournament said during May 17 Summit of the space industry, conducted virtually. “There was a shortage of radios or optical cross-links, and they were willing to share them with each other so we could get started on time.”
This kind of teammate friendship is “rare,” he said.
Concerns remain, and Tournear said the delay in some items is putting pressure on the agency’s schedule to launch its first batch of satellites this fall. And despite efforts to diversify their supply bases, there are still dependencies among the agency’s main contractors.
Over the next few years, the SDA plans to launch at least 182 satellites in two capability areas known as layers: a transport layer that will provide network communications and serve as a backbone to the Pentagon’s concept of joint management and control of all domains; and a missile tracking layer that can detect and track hypersonic weapons and advanced missile threats from space.
The list of companies under contract to build these satellites includes Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, traditional simplers who have developed many of the large, expensive satellites that have made up the Department of Defense’s space architecture for years. It also includes companies lesser known for being major satellite manufacturers – SpaceX, L3Harris and Colorado-based York Space Systems.
In both cases, whether large and well-established or less experienced in satellite production, companies had to adjust their supplier base to meet the SDA’s call for significant quantities of small satellites.
Lockheed Martin’s approach to the problem is to establish what it calls the Agility Partners Market, which is essentially a group of suppliers whose parts and technologies are tested and mature. The company has a contract to build 10 satellites for the first round of satellites in the transport layer, called Tranche 0, and 42 for Tranche 1.
Although Lockheed has an established, proven supply base for its other programs, 96% of its Tranche 1 suppliers are non-traditional vendors, according to Eric Dahler, the company’s leader in secure communications missions. Daehler told C4ISRNET that the market offers the company a base of suppliers that can compete for future work and serve as a backup source if supply problems arise with one of its suppliers. This will also help in the future, as Lockheed seeks to increase production levels for larger tranches of SDA satellites.
“We already have a network of suppliers to provide our hardware,” he said in an interview on April 6. “We gave each of our suppliers areas where they could focus on improving their products, and then we gave concrete actions to some of them to say, ‘Here’s how we can work on partnerships.’
For the partner part, Daehler said Lockheed has managed to tailor its support to suppliers based on their needs. For example, a supplier had to choose between investing in the equipment he needed to develop a certain piece of hardware, or focus on making other parts of his production system more efficient. Because Lockheed had this equipment, the company could use its system and then refocus its investments on improving production efficiency.
L3Harris, a Melbourne-based space technology company that has increased its satellite manufacturing capacity in recent years, has adopted a “delivery design” mentality for its part of the SDA architecture. The company has a contract to supply four Tranche 0 missile tracking satellites.
According to Rob Mitrevski, the company’s vice president and general manager of spectral solutions, this mentality means that when his team develops satellite projects, he ensures that the parts they rely on are easy to buy.
“Some primary programs choose to go with multiple providers, which is an easy approach,” Mitrevski told C4ISRNET in an interview. “The harder way is to modify your design and develop things that are easier and more productive.”
The company also did what its vice president of space and air systems, Tim Lynch, calls “crowdsourcing supplies.”
“What we usually do is look at the market and who buys what and how much we say, ‘Can I get on this production line?'” Lynch said.
If it works, he said, L3Harris doesn’t have to start its own production line for a small amount of a component, but can instead benefit from economies of scale on a line that already produces large quantities of that part.
Mitrevski said that if the company’s work with the SDA expands into additional production, the strategy could grow with it.
“Everything is expandable,” he said. “We took the long-term view that we had to design for productivity, technology, scale and volume. Because the reward is not this phase. The reward is to be a participant in recorded programs and constellations that exist beyond that. “
While the SDA and its industry partners have been able to prevent supply chain problems with many of the high-quality satellite components, Tournear said the agency was caught unprepared for problems with some of the lower-end parts, including resistors, cables and connectors.
Along with radio stations pushing the SDA’s Tranche 0 launch schedule, the agency had to switch providers of its optical cross-links, which provide direct communication between satellites and are a key factor in the transport layer.
Tournament said he expects the Tranche 0 launch schedule to remain in line with these concerns, but he expects the agency to face similar problems as it expects to launch satellites in larger quantities in the future.
“We expect the same difficulties,” he said. “The advantages are that the suppliers know it’s coming. They know it’s real. “
He added that while the industry will be better prepared for unexpected problems, it is not possible to predict which components may cause problems.
“It’s one of those things we have to play Whack-a-Mole with while building these satellites,” he said.
Courtney Alban is a C4ISRNET reporter for space and new technologies. Previously, it covered the US Air Force and the US Space Force.