Pentagon dumps $1.5B more into military sat network that's already slipping behind

One might say this program is truly up in the air

Things haven't gone to plan exactly for the US military's latest warfighting satellite constellation, but that hasn't stopped the Department of Defense from shelling out more than a billion dollars to build more hardware for the up-in-the-skies project. 

The Space Development Agency (SDA), a unit of Space Force, announced Monday it had awarded approximately $1.5 billion to Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin for a batch of 72 satellites for the Pentagon's Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA) constellation.

Technically speaking, these birds will form a prototype constellation called the Tranche 2 Transport Layer - Beta (T2TL) as part of the PWSA program. (It's the military: nothing is straightforward.) The first of these satellites are expected to launch by September 2026.

The PWSA constellation is the SDA's sole project, and is ultimately planned to be "a threat-driven constellation of small satellites that deliver critical services to our warfighters from space," the agency said. Think of it as chucking a load of satellites into different orbits to keep America's armed forces connected via a communications network up above in orbit.

Among the services the PWSA will provide to the US military are: low-latency tactical data links; improved missile tracking, and land and marine target coverage; and targeting of objects beyond line of sight. It's the space-based backbone for the Department of Defense's Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) infrastructure, which the DoD sees as the future of its ability to integrate the military across space, air, land, sea and cyber domains. 

Too many targets

Both Russia and China have shown they're willing and able to blow up orbiting satellites. The SDA said the "proliferated" part of the PWSA is supposed to mitigate that threat through its sheer number of hard-to-hit targets. Safety in numbers, one might say.

Speaking in April at the Navy League's 2023 Sea Air Space Conference and Expo, SDA director Derek Tournear said PWSA will launch "hundreds and hundreds of satellites" so that if some are destroyed by a foreign power, the network will continue to function.

"Our satellites are more affordable than the missiles that you need to shoot them down. So we've kind of taken that off the table. We made it to where it's really difficult to shoot those satellites down just by virtue of proliferation," Tournear said. 

Along with sheer quantity, Tournear said that PWSA would also be deployed at multiple low-Earth orbit altitudes to further complicate the constellation and make it harder to disrupt. 

This, of course, raises the question of how PWSA will combat our growing space garbage problem. We put that and several other questions to the SDA, and await a reply. 

What's in a tranche?

This latest batch of satellites will augment the first tranche, scheduled for deployment in fiscal year 2024. Tranche 1 craft, in turn, will provide initial warfighting capabilities such as "regional persistence for tactical data links, advanced missile detection, and beyond line of sight targeting," the SDA said

Tranche 3 is expected to feature better missile tracking capabilities; improved position, navigation, and timing; and protected RF communications. Also planned is tranche 4, which SDA only describes as adding "continual advances to the [prior] layers."

There's also a tranche 0, the very first batch of satellites, 10 of which were launched in April. Those first satellites are mainly data transporters and missile trackers, and are a "minimum viable product" designed to demonstrate the feasibility of the proliferated style of design PWSA is leaning on for funding. 

Tranche 0 is also where problems began to pop up for the PWSA. First, supply chain delays pushed back a March launch to April, and then the second launch was delayed from June to July, then pushed back to late August, reportedly because of unspecified cryptography issues with the NSA.

Along with that, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been reluctant to clear the tranche 0 satellites for downlinking because of concerns over possible EM interference.

Instead of getting clearance to connect to stationary receiver stations in the US, the SDA has only been given permission to test its new satellites by downlinking to aircraft flying over oceans.

The Register reached out to the FAA to get clarity on its PWSA spat with the SDA, and we didn't immediately hear back. 

Tranche 0 was supposed to be tested over the summer [PDF], though missed its window due to the aforementioned issues with the FAA and NSA that delayed the second launch and the SDA's ability to downlink from its satellites.

It's unclear when tests will actually occur, or whether delays will change the SDA's deployment timeline. Your tax dollars are at work, however. ®

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