Massive missile defense, satellite program draws protests

The National Defense Space Architecture program is a huge undertaking, which makes getting in at the beginning a strategic advantage. It is no wonder then that the first two contract awards have drawn protests from disappointed bidders.

Something as huge and encompassing as a system of satellites to track adversaries' hypersonic weapons and missiles would never get all the way through without some protests.

That is where we are now with the Space Development Agency’s $342 million in contracts for the start of that effort, or what SDA calls "Tranche 0 Tracking Layer."

L3Harris Technologies and SpaceX each won a contract in early October. They will both build four satellites to provide missile tracking data for hypersonic weapons and other next-generation advanced missile threats.

Those four satellites are just the start as eventually there will be hundreds of them to provide tracking and transport information to the military. Those satellites will be built through Tranche 1 in 2024 and then Tranche 2 in 2026, according to the Defense Department.

So getting in on Tranche 0 is definitely a strategic advantage for L3Harris and SpaceX. And not getting on the contract is a disadvantage.

With that said, Airbus' U.S. subsidiary and Raytheon have filed bid protests with the Government Accountability Office, challenging how the evaluations were conducted. If it had been conducted properly, they would have won, not L3Harris and SpaceX.

Airbus U.S. Space & Defense filed its protest on Oct. 28 and Raytheon followed on Nov. 3. A ruling or rulings by GAO should come in early February.

These contracts are under the umbrella of the National Defense Space Architecture program that covers multiple opportunities.

L3Harris and SpaceX were picked to build the tracking layer satellites. Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems were tapped to build 20 total transport layer satellites under a separate $187.5 million contract.

Perspecta on Oct. 22 won a potential $111 million contract for mission systems engineering and integration services as part of Tranche 0.

Still to come are contracts to launch the 28 satellites that are part of Tranche 0.

The tracking and transport satellites will work together. The tracking satellites will do just what their name implies -- detect and track threats.

When the tracking layer detects a threat, that information is sent to the transport layer satellites. The latter satellites take the data from multiple tracking satellites, fuse it and then calculate a response. The transport satellites will send that data directly to a weapons platform via a tactical data link or other means, according to DOD.

Tranche 0 will be fielded in 2022 and will give enough capacity to test concepts and how the data can fit into battle plans, DOD said.

Tranche 1 in 2024 would add hundreds more satellites and then Tranche 2 in 2026 will build out the system as needed. The goal is to have global coverage.

Beyond 2026, the idea is to launch more satellites every two years with new capabilities and retire older satellites.

While space-based, the system will be used to support missions in the land, sea and air warfighter domains.