The Defense Department relies heavily on space-based satellites for much of the work it does to defend the United States, and that reliance is expected to grow in coming years.

While space assets such as satellites will always be at risk from U.S. adversaries, the best way to ensure continued access to space capabilities is proliferation, Derek Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency, said.

“Proliferation is our biggest defense,” Tournear said while speaking today during a panel discussion sponsored by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a nonpartisan policy research institute based in Arlington, Va. “That’s how we plan on really getting the resilience and the defense of our entire architecture.”

The SDA is responsible for orchestrating development and implementation of the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. The PWSA will include a mesh network of hundreds of satellites to provide space-based capabilities to the joint warfighter. 

The strength of that network of satellites, he said, is expected to come not from defensive capabilities that focus on individual satellites, but rather from the sheer number of satellites launched. Protecting individual satellites becomes less important, he said, when there are so many of them.

“That’s the way you have to look at it when you’re talking about proliferated constellations,” he said. “Each individual one you can’t really care about. You have to care about the health of the whole herd, the health of the whole architecture. And so, we have everything in place to make sure that we can maintain that resiliency and maintain … operations even if you start to lose [individual satellites].” 

Tournear also said that cybersecurity plays an important role in protecting the PWSA, however. 

“Obviously we have cyber protections in place to protect the entire architecture and the network, and we have a lot of the environmental sensing pieces that are in place to give us an idea of what’s going on,” he said. “We put GPS situational awareness sensors on our satellites for those kinds of things, to make sure that we can kind of sense the environment.”

The PWSA system will eventually include hundreds of satellites, delivered in tranches every two years, with each tranche providing more capability than the last.

The network of hundreds of optically connected satellites will deliver two primary capabilities to warfighters on the ground. The first is beyond line-of-sight targeting for ground and maritime time-sensitive targets, which includes mobile missiles and ships, for instance. The system will provide the ability to detect those targets, track them, calculate a fire control solution and deliver that solution down to a weapons platform so the target can be destroyed. The second capability is similar to the first, but for enemy missiles already in flight.

The PWSA involves seven layers, including a mesh network of hundreds of optically interconnected satellites in orbit that make up its transport layer. There will also be tracking, custody, deterrence, navigation, battle management and support layers.

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