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Tags: Space Development Agency | SDA

Whither the Space Development Agency?

a satellite over the earth

Henry F. Cooper By Monday, 16 November 2020 08:24 AM EST Current | Bio | Archive

While national news reports focus on examining the November 3rd election results, other less political but very important issues also await that outcome.

Not the least of these is the future of the Space Development Agency (SDA), formed in March 2019 to adapt advanced technology and methodology from the private sector to accelerate the pace and reduce the cost of building important space systems to protect the American people. That desired progress must wind its way through a political thicket. Consider a few past encounters with that thicket.

The SDA's innovative effort was resisted by the senior U.S. Air Force personnel, including then-Secretary Heather Wilson, as well as key authorities on Capitol Hill. In short, they argued that the usual Air Force acquisition systems could achieve what was needed. False!

Dr. Mike Griffin, then-Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, prevailed in getting the SDA started, funded and focused on quickly achieving a proliferated low-altitude satellite system to support our needed "catch-up" efforts to counter the growing hypersonic missile threat from China and Russia.

That threat could defeat our current and planned ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, and countering it was Griffin's stated top priority. And he saw the SDA as key to achieving that objective.

In the summer of 2019, SDA Director Dereck Tourney laid out his plans to launch its first 22 satellites by 2022 and to grow that constellation to 1,000 low-altitude satellites by 2025 — six years after that 2019 Industry Day.

In other words, in less time that it normally takes the Air Force to design and launch a single satellite, the SDA is on a track to put a system employing 1,000 satellites in orbit in an important operational context. And several industry teams are now under contract to meet this schedule.

As I understand it, this important system is supposed to employ needed sensor information to enable other BMD systems — based on the ground, at sea or in the air — to intercept the threatening hypersonic "Boost-Glide" threat from China and Russia.

I certainly believe meeting this schedule is possible, based on President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI) developments over 30 years ago.

Indeed, USAF Lt. General James A. Abrahamson's 1989 End-of-Tour report as the first SDI Director noted that the Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor system could be developed in five years — and that system would have had a sensor suite that would meet objectives that I understand the SDA is seeking.

His successor, USAF Lt. General George L. Monahan, ran the gauntlet of numerous technology and Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) reviews and the Pentagon's top Defense Acquisition Executive (The Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition) approved it as the first SDI system concept to enter a formal Demonstration and Validation (DenVal) effort.

General Monahan fired the Air Force because he could not get them to take this concept seriously and established a Brilliant Pebbles Task Force, reporting directly to him, to manage two contractor teams (down-selected from a competition of five contractor team) aimed at constellation of 1,000 Brilliant Pebbles. (Sound familiar?)

I supported this decision in my independent review of our SDI and our arms control efforts for Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in early 1990, after which he asked me to become the third SDI Director — and I enthusiastically pursued the Brilliant Pebbles effort until the end of the George H.W. Bush administration. I also pursued a Brilliant Eyes space-based sensor system that sounds much like the current SDA effort.

My April 23, 2019 Newsmax article, "Space Based Interceptors: The Price Is Right," challenged exaggerated cost estimates of space-based interceptors and referred to my first Newsmax article that I co-authored with General Abrahamson to argue our "Opinion: America Must Revive Space-Based Interceptors." We had previously reported in The Wall Street Journal that "the Pentagon's acquisition authorities estimated that system would cost $10-billion in 1988 dollars — now inflated to $20-billion — for full development, deployment, and 20-years operations."

Just as Mike Griffin claimed in a Capitol Hill presentation:

"I get tired of hearing how it would cost $100-or-more billion to put up a space-based interceptor layer. The entire cost of a system with 1,000 SBIs could come in at about $20 billion. We've paid a lot more [for other technologies] and gotten a lot less in the Defense Department over the years."

Brilliant Pebbles carried a sensor suite, a modern version of which could probably accomplish the objectives being sought by the SDA. If we had built that global BMD system, I believe we would not be confronting the current Hypersonic Boost-Glide threat.

Notably, SDI technologists worked with NASA and the Naval Research Laboratory to execute the scientific award-winning 1994 Clementine mission that returned to the moon for the first time in a quarter century. It space-qualified first-generation prototype Brilliant Pebbles sensors that discovered water in the moon's polar regions. A Clementine replica now resides in Washington's Smithsonian, next to the Lunar Lander.

So, why don't we have that needed capability?

Well, the Clinton administration immediately canceled all SDI advanced technology efforts — as Defense Secretary Les Aspin said in early 1993, he "took the stars out of Star Wars." And it cancelled planned Clementine follow-on deep space mission because it employed SDI technology.

A hiatus in our research on related important technologies followed — and our adversaries caught up and now threaten all our less capable BMD capabilities. The Trump administration SDA efforts again make clear we can meet the serious threat that advanced while we mostly sat idle for a quarter century.

It will be informative to see how the SDA efforts meet such political challenges in addressing U.S. Space Force Commander General Raymond's recent guidance that "While we will extend and defend America's competitive advantage in peacetime, the ultimate measure of our readiness is the ability to prevail should war initiate in, or extend to, space."

Stay tuned.

Ambassador Henry F. (Hank) Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and an acknowledged expert on strategic and space national security issues, was President Ronald Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. Previously, he served as the Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Deputy Assistant USAF Secretary, Science Adviser to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory and a USAF Reserve Captain. In the private sector he was Chairman of Applied Research Associates, a high technology company; member of the technical staff of Jaycor, R&D Associates and Bell Telephone Laboratories; a Senior Associate of the National Institute for Public Policy; and Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees from Clemson and a PhD from New York University, all in Mechanical Engineering. Read Ambassador Cooper's Reports — More Here.

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While national news reports focus on examining the November 3rd election results, other less political but very important issues also await that outcome.
Space Development Agency, SDA
Monday, 16 November 2020 08:24 AM
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