The Space Development Agency (SDA) on Aug. 31 awarded $281.5 million in firm, fixed-price contracts to Lockheed Martin [LMT] and York Space Systems to build 10 satellites each for an initial space-based sensor and tactical communications constellation–Tranche O–to be fielded by 2022.

Lockheed Martin received a $187.5 million contract and York Space Systems a $94 million contract for the first generation of the National Defense Space Architecture’s Transport Layer.

“This is a very important step toward building the National Defense Space Architecture,” Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mark Lewis told reporters on Aug. 31. SDA is to finish work on Tranche O before the agency becomes part of the U.S. Space Force, Lewis said–a transfer that is to happen by the start of fiscal 2023.

The architecture will effectively be an optically-connected Internet in space to provide tactical data–low latency communications and targeting information–to military forces in the field.

The executive chairman of the Denver-based York Space Systems is retired U.S. Air Force Col. Charles Beames, who chairs the SmallSat Alliance and who was the president of aerospace investment firm, Vulcan Aerospace. Beames, who writes a space column for Forbes Magazine, managed space/intelligence system procurement at the Pentagon from 2009-13.

The first layer of the National Defense Space Architecture to be fielded is a backbone data communications transport layer, with cross-linked space-based systems issuing communications directly to weapon systems and operators. The goal is to upgrade the layer’s capabilities every two years, with the satellites themselves being replaced every five years (Defense Daily, Sept. 20, 2019).

SDA is to field the 20 Tranche 0 satellites in low earth orbit by the end of fiscal 2022. A much larger constellation with hundreds of satellites will follow by 2024.

The satellites are to be the foundation of DoD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) architecture to transfer tactical data from space to operating military units.

Tranche 0 is the “warfighter immersion tranche”–the transport layer–of the architecture, which also will consist of a a tracking layer and a custody layer to provide data to the transport layer.

“The architecture is based on two key pillars: proliferation and spiral development, and we’re showing that we can keep a schedule, push a minimum viable product and do that spiral development as we learn, as we grow, and as we develop new capabilities that will go on the next tranche,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said during the Aug. 31 call.

The 10 satellites to be launched by each company for the mesh network consist of 7 in Class A and three in Class B. A Class A satellite will have at least four optical cross links to other satellites in the same or different orbits, while a Class B satellite will have two optical cross links to furnish constant communications among other satellites in the transport layer and a Link 16 transmitter to communicate with front-line forces.

A much larger constellation with hundreds of satellites in Tranche 1 will follow by September 2024. Tournear said that date will enable initial warfighting capability with hundreds of transport layer satellites and dozens of tracking and custody satellites.

“That would allow you to have enough satellites to give you persistence over a given region,” he said.

Full global coverage is scheduled for Tranche 2–hundreds of more satellites–by the end of fiscal 2026. Such “full global persistence for all missions” includes low-latency communications and the detection and tracking of time-sensitive targets, such as mobile missile launchers, hypersonic glide weapons, advanced missiles, and maritime targets.

“Right now we do not have a method to do tactical comm/tactical low-latency targeting beyond line-of-sight,” Tournear said. “For the first mission, which is beyond line-of-sight, fire on remote, beyond line-of-sight targeting, there is no method for that to occur so this [Tranche 2] would give you a complete global network to be able to pass targeting data directly from different sensor systems, fuse them together, and send them to a weapons platform so that a lanyard can be pulled, weapons could be released…so that you could put an effect on target. That does not exist today. All the weapons systems have to rely on either separate silo’ed communications systems communicating directly with that weapons system or with the weapon system itself being able to determine a fire control solution.”

The second mission of Tranche 2 will be the detection, tracking and destruction of advanced missile threats through the fusing of sensor information and “fire on remote,” Tournear said.

To gain insights on what military forces in the field want, SDA has a “warfighter engagement cell,” led by John London, a former Air Force officer and chief engineer of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Space and Strategic Systems Directorate at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., who has been detailed to SDA since June.

Tournear said that the combatant commands have been giving input to London’s cell for Tranche 0 and that SDA has also been working with the military services. SDA has been most “tightly linked” with the Army and its future Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node (TITAN) ground station for providing fused sensor data to weapons systems at the battalion level, Tournear said.

On Sept. 1, the Defense Innovation Unit and the Army Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities (TENCAP) office chose Northrop Grumman [NOC] to build two TITAN prototypes.

The SDA “warfighter engagement cell” has also been working with the U.S. Air Force on its Advanced Battle Management System, the service’s component of JADC2.

The Air Force has picked dozens of companies to participate in ABMS, a planned $3.3 billion effort over five years.

To connect with the National Defense Space Architecture’s Transport Layer, ABMS is to have a GatewayONE waveform translator, a RadioONE software-defined radio, and an ApertureONE common aperture for communications and radar. The latter three methods will allow the dissemination of data to military forces in the field without Link 16 “or another way to communicate with our transport layer,” Tournear said.

Tranche 0 is to culminate in a capstone demonstration of reducing the sensor-to-shooter kill chain from hours/days to “orders of magnitude faster than that,” he said.

SDA said that the National Defense Space Architecture’s laser communications is inherently anti-jam and that communications security is one of the prime motivating factors to develop and deploy optical intersatellite links (OISL). “By comparison to its RF [radio frequency] counterpart, optical wireless communications technology has a much narrower beamwidth and can accordingly be directed more precisely from transmitter to receiver,” per SDA. “Given this precision, optical intersatellite links are not nearly as prone to disruptive or deceptive jamming techniques.”

“The biggest challenges [for the National Defense Space Architecture], which we’re working to anticipate and mitigate, are getting the OISL mesh network to deliver on schedule, along with the Link-16 network interoperability,” according to SDA.

The agency said that the architecture allows for the provision of real-time information to a platform but that weapons release depends on a human operator. “There is no current plan, nor hooks in the systems, that could allow complete autonomy,” per SDA.