As the Space Development Agency (SDA) approaches its third birthday on March 12, the agency on Feb. 28 announced nearly $1.8 billion in awards to three contractors for 126 prototype satellites for the National Defense Space Architecture transport layer’s Tranche 1–the SDA’s first stab at fielding operational satellites to provide resilient, high volume, minimal lag time communications for military missions.

The transport layer is to be the backbone of the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept.

The optically-linked satellites are to be ready for launch in September 2024. Each contractor is to build 42 satellites.

Lockheed Martin [LMT] in Littleton, Colo., won $700 million, Northrop Grumman [NOC] in Redondo Beach, Calif. $692 million, and Denver-based York Space Systems won $382 million.

Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems had won firm, fixed-price contracts SDA contracts worth $281.5 million in August 2020 to build 10 satellites each for Tranche 0 of the transport layer (Defense Daily, Sep. 1, 2020).

The Tranche 1 transport layer satellites are to be 15 to 20 percent larger than the Tranche 0 transport layer satellites, as the Tranche 1 birds are to be Link 16 capable, SDA director Derek Tournear told reporters in a Defense Writers Group on Feb. 28.

Tournear said SDA had received eight offerings for Tranche 1. The agency plans to develop new tranches–each worth about $2 billion–biennially.

“Realistically, York is just able to deliver at a lower price point than what Lockheed and Northrop bid,” Tournear said regarding the more than $300 million difference in the contracts received by York Space Systems and Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman. “We weight that in. The way SDA does its evaluation–schedule risk is number 1.  ‘Semper citius’–that’s our motto. We’re all about speed to make sure we hit those two-year cycles. After that, 50 percent of the evaluation critieria is in the cost reasonableness so we looked at that. That’s a big factor. But overall, it’s just that York is just able to deliver at a lower price point.”

Nevertheless, the cost for each of the 126 is to remain, as it was in Tranche 0, $14 million–comparatively very low for satellites.

“I won’t speculate on the internal overhead differences between York and Lockheed Martin,” Tournear said on Feb. 28 when asked whether overhead was the primary difference in the significant cost differences between York Space Systems’ bid and Lockheed Martin’s/Northrop Grumman’s. “York is a different business model. Everything they do is essentially commercial fixed price type models. They’re not set up to do the same kind of processing as far as overhead that Lockheed and Northrop are.”

The Tranche 1 satellites, besides having optical links to other satellites, are to broadcast Link 16 L-band Radio Frequency data to any MIDS terminal fielded in the U.S. military.

“That’s a big deal,” he said. “That is a managed network. You get a time slice, and all that is managed. You have to do Doppler corrections on transmit and receive because we’re breaking the network in two ways. One, it was never designed to go further than 300 nautical miles. Well, we’re orbiting higher than that so that’s not gonna work, especially if you’re just overhead, so we have to have some workarounds there. And, second, it was never designed to operate with anything with an orbital speed, and so you have to do a lot of Doppler corrections to correct for that change in speed, as it changes the radio frequencies.”

“The good news is SDA is trailing on a lot of the tech development,” Tournear said. “That’s SDA’s model. We take technology that’s mature, and we field in in a rapid sense. We are prototyping constellations. We’re not prototyping individual technologies.”

SDA is leveraging the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) XVI experiment announced in 2020 for 30,000 Link 16 radios (Defense Daily, June 5, 2020).

“AFRL has the XVI experiment. They burn down a lot of the non-recurring engineering to be able to figure out how they would get a Link 16 radio to communicate with a satellite,” Tournear said. “They worked with Mitre and did some rocket tests, some sounding rockets, to show that it could be done. All of that technology [risk] has been burned down. We’re going to fly and demonstrate that as far as Tranche 0. That’s one of the technical challenges we’ve been working on to make sure that we know all of the issues there and that we can demonstrate that.”

2022 looks to be a busy year for SDA, including launch of 20 Tranche 0 transport layer satellites and eight Tranche 0 tracking layer overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) satellites this fall (Defense Daily, Jan. 12).

2022 is also to see the integration of SDA into the U.S. Space Force under a new Space Force service acquisition executive by Oct. 1 and a solicitation for 28 Tranche 1 tracking layer satellites.

In addition, a solicitation for the 18 experimental satellites in Tranche 1 of the Transport Layer is expected by early summer.