Space Development Agency calls on satellite builders to diversify suppliers

WASHINGTON — The Space Development Agency is pushing prime contractors to line up secondary and tertiary suppliers for key satellite components amid fears of supply chain shortfalls that could delay the agency’s ambitious schedule for deploying a new proliferated architecture in low-Earth orbit.

Col. Alexander Rasmussen, chief of SDA’s Tracking Layer program, said the agency is in discussions with all its major vendors about “diversifying the supplier base” as much as possible after issues emerged with contractors being overly reliant on single sources for critical subsystems.

An agency under the U.S. Space Force, SDA has plans to spend about $4 billion a year on a proliferated constellation of hundreds of small satellites to be deployed on a frequent cadence. In order to leverage the commercial satellite market, the agency is ordering satellites from multiple vendors and requiring manufacturers to make their spacecraft interoperable via optical links.

That approach has created supply chain bottlenecks that delayed the deployment of SDA’s first batch of satellites, known as Tranche 0. The agency continues to have concerns about limited manufacturing capacity among suppliers to scale up production. 

‘Energize’ supply chain

Speaking June 5 in an interview with C4ISRNET, Rasmussen said Tranche 0 provided a major lesson about getting the supply chains “energized early.” He said SDA’s prime contractors understand that they have to have a “different mentality” when it comes to ordering parts and components for satellites. 

“We’re not going to do a milestone and then order some parts and then another milestone. We have to have pretty mature designs at kickoff, and start ordering those long-lead items really early to make sure we understand if there is enough supply chain diversity,” said Rasmussen. 

During the Tranche 0 program the agency learned that multiple primes were dependent on the same vendor for certain items, like encryption systems. Others were buying propulsion systems from a vendor that couldn’t meet the demand because they were having financial issues.

Those crunch points prompted a reckoning within the agency about supply chain vulnerabilities, Rasmussen said.

SDA is “open to new suppliers and sub-tier suppliers,” he said. Rasmussen noted that the agency prefers to work with U.S. suppliers as much as possible. 

The next major milestone will be Tranche 1 deliveries, monitored closely in the industry and the Pentagon as a bellwether for whether SDA can execute its proliferated LEO strategy as planned. SDA said it expects Tranche 1 launches to later this year and in early 2025 

A skeptical view

An industry source who works closely with a range of space suppliers offered a more skeptical view of SDA’s ability to rapidly diversify its vendor pool, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation candidly. 

“The industry hasn’t responded to the demand signal for this new volume of satellites quite as well as we had hoped — at least not yet — largely due to some structural issues,” the source said.

One problem, the executive said, is that SDA still appears heavily reliant on the traditional major prime contractors rather than tapping more mid-tier companies that could help expand supply chain capacity. This fuels concern among startups and private investors that all the new demand will simply flow to the incumbent behemoths, distorting the demand signals.

Sourcing restrictions that preclude using certain foreign suppliers for U.S. national security systems are another limiting factor, the executive noted. So too is the risk-averse culture and “heritage” mindset that still dominates the aerospace industry.

To cultivate more suppliers, the industry veteran suggested SDA fund more demonstration projects allowing vendors to mature payloads, propulsion and other technologies critical for the proliferated LEO architecture. 

SDA this month announced it’s starting a new prototyping program that signals an effort to widen the agency’s industrial base. The “Hybrid Acquisition for Proliferated LEO” (HALO) program would be an avenue for non-traditional companies to gain experience working on demonstration projects.


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