Podcast

The Elara Edge: Expert Insights on Space Security

Episode 2: Revolutionizing Missile Warning with the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture

Connected Satellite Network over Earth

00:00 – 01:22
In response to rapidly evolving threats from near-peer adversaries like Russia and China, the Space Development Agency was founded in early 2019 to disrupt the acquisition process for the Department of Defense. Now, just a few short years later, the SDA is making headlines. 

Earlier this spring, the SDA launched its initial round of satellites for its Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture – or PWSA – with the intention of modernizing the missile warning architecture watching over our nation. The SDA followed this up with a second successful launch in September of 2023, with one final launch for its Tranche 0 satellites slated for sometime later this year. Not only do these launches demonstrate the changing dynamics of the space domain, but they provide a glimpse into how the Space Force and the Space Development Agency is seeking to revolutionize its procurement process to meet the pacing threat. 

Welcome to The Elara Edge: Expert Insights on Space Security. I’m your host – Scott King – and today I’m speaking with Mike Dickey, founding partner of Elara Nova and the Former Chief Architect of the United States Space Force. 

Sir, it’s great to have you on The Elara Edge with me today. So before we get started on the SDA’s procurement process for its Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture – PWSA – can you tell me about the DOD’s traditional approach to a space architecture for the missile warning mission?

01:23 – 02:14
We were kind of the only game in space. It wasn’t contested like we talk about now. So that was how missile warning was done. What we typically would do is we’d send a satellite into geosynchronous orbit, which is this unique orbit where the period of the orbit exactly matches a day on the Earth so it looks like it’s parked overhead. 

So when you have one satellite that you can park over one area and put a missile warning sensor on it, then you get access to that area all the time and you only have to have one satellite to do the job. And we could just load tons and tons of capability and launch it to the place that was most efficient, so that’s the word I would use for the traditional approach. It was always built around efficiency.

So that’s cost-efficient. Turns out we’ll talk about is not very militarily effective. But that’s really the traditional approach is: be very efficient, don’t launch very many satellites, park them in a place where you don’t need very many and go from there.

02:14 – 02:26
So you mentioned the traditional approach is no longer militarily effective? Can you elaborate on how the modern threat has evolved to the point where we even have to re-think how we develop our missile warning architecture?


02:26 – 04:34
Two things have kind of fundamentally changed that causes us to rethink the missile warning architecture. Russia and China who are more on a…almost on a peer status who are building and testing a wide range of technologies and systems that can disrupt or destroy our space assets.

So when I talk about everything being so efficient and I could just sit over a point on the globe with one satellite, now I’ve created a huge amount of fragility in that architecture. That one satellite goes away and now my capability goes away for that region.

But the contested space with near-pear adversaries is part of change number one. Change number two is those same countries are building missiles that are very different and exploit the technical limitations of the traditional architecture I was talking about.

So the traditional missile threat is a ballistic missile. It’s like football when a quarterback throws a pass, the instant that ball comes out of the quarterback’s hand, you know what direction it’s headed. You know what speed it’s headed, you know what angle the quarterback threw the ball at. And so you can do a little high school algebra and you know where the ball’s going.

Same thing with ballistic missiles. As soon as the rocket burns out in the first minute or two after launch, you know where that rocket is headed and you know what time it’s going to get there. But now the missiles that Russia and China are building are these hypersonic maneuvering missiles. So when they maneuver it, all the math breaks down and you can’t predict anymore. So you have to basically keep custody of the missile the entire time it’s flying. 

And then the other thing that those missiles do is they fly very low, much closer to the Earth than a ballistic missile which goes into space and then just falls back out of space. Hypersonic missiles stay in the atmosphere, and it’s harder to see – they’re much dimmer. So when the nearest space-based asset is looking for heat, these missiles are much dimmer.

And so it’s harder when you’re in those geosynchronous orbits, way far away from the Earth to see those missiles. So those two things really changed the game and caused us to re-think in the 2018, 19, 20 period how to redo the missile warning architecture and that kind of gives rise then to the Space Development Agency and the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.

04:35 – 04:42
And then so, how does the Space Development Agency view PWSA as a modern solution that can meet this evolving missile threat?


04:43 – 06:22
It’s pretty disruptive because it breaks this traditional efficiency model and tries to get something that’s more militarily effective, like I said, so that’s why Warfighter is an important part of the title. But there’s two things that really underpin what they’re trying to do and the first one is: come closer to the Earth. 

When a satellite is closer to the Earth it only sees a little piece of the Earth as it flies by and it’s only overhead for ten or so minutes, as opposed to this – it’s overhead 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But your two orders of magnitude closer to the planet.

And so when you’re closer to the fight, whether that be missiles or communications for forces on the ground and telling airplanes and missiles where to go and those kinds of things. It’s faster, and in some cases easier, to do that when you’re closer to the Earth which requires you then to proliferate to be able to see the areas you want to see because the satellites are moving relative to any point on Earth.

The other thing that PWSA tries to do is implement more of this technology refresh. So do things on fast cycles, do spiral development. You know your iPhone 15’s coming out – they didn’t wait until they knew what everything on the iPhone 15 was going to be and then build it, right?

We had an iPhone one through 14 and bit by bit, those capabilities grew and grew over time. So there’s two kinds of disruptive things – going on traditional by getting close to the Earth and use fast technology refresh cycles. 

In the traditional model, those missile warning satellites, we launch them and fifteen, twenty years they’d be in orbit. So you’d never get an opportunity to refresh the technology on those satellites. Now, PWSA allows us to do that every two or three or four years.

06:23 – 06:32
That certainly seems to be a pretty ambitious and even innovative approach. So what are the advantages that the Space Development Agency sees in fielding the missile warning architecture this way?

06:33 – 08:03
The Department of Defense created an agency to be this sort of disruptive influence on the traditional – Space Development Agency – it is now part of the Space Force after the Space Force stood up. And they’re just now getting to the point where they’re launching some satellites on orbit. And so they use this term the “tranches” and this is the spiral development. Tranche zero, which is what they’re just now launching.

Then as they move up in tranches: Tranche one will add some additional capability and might start to give us some regional persistence so you can design a constellation, so more times than not it’s over an area on the planet that you’re interested in. 

Tranche two then is the first time you build out this proliferation enough with hundreds of satellites so you can get global coverage. You can see and communicate anywhere on the globe.

In communications, for instance, you might not have all the bandwidth you want, missile warning, you might not be as sensitive as you’d like to be. So then subsequent tranches after tranche two just as that spiral development, the iPhone 11, 12, 13 that get better and better.

ou know, the other important part of the PWSA is that what we’re doing at each individual satellite is making it radically simpler. So we’re two orders of magnitude closer to the Earth.

We’re only expecting those satellites to last for two, three years so those satellites can be built with cheaper parts, less testing. So the price of these individual node goes down and that’s critical because now I’m not building one, I’m building two hundred.

08:04 – 08:28
Both of the SDA’s launches to date have included satellites for Tracking and Data Transport purposes. How do these different satellite “layers” as the SDA is calling them, kind of work together in this architecture, and then on a further note, how do they relate to the broader purpose of developing capability for the DOD’s Joint All Domain Command and Control – or JADC2?

08:29 – 09:22
So now I have to start connecting these satellites to each other so they can talk to each other and know when a missile is passing underneath, for instance. 

And they have to – at some point bring all that data to the ground which kind of ties in the other thing that the PWSA is doing is building a transport layer, which is this sort of network in space, because when a satellite is, say, over the Pacific Ocean, in the INDO-PACOM Theater, you know we don’t have ground stations in the INDO-PACOM theater.

So that data has to get into a network and then come back to the U.S. through other means. So we’re pushing a lot of complexity off of the individual satellites, lease satellites to be simpler and cheaper. But the whole architecture becomes complex in different ways and so the ability to step through tranche zero, tranche one, tranche two allows this kind of stepwise approach too, to making sure all those other complexities are taken care of.

09:23 – 09:35
The SDA is soliciting support for PWSA across a number of manufacturers and a number of industry partners. What advantage is SDA trying to leverage by broadening its pool of partners from the commercial sector? 

09:36 – 10:54
One of the fundamentals that the Space Development Agency pushes into everything they’re doing is this constant, continuous innovation and I think the primary advantage of having multiple players in the space is you get – it incentivizes continuous innovation.

So everybody wants to try to one up the next guy because another contract’s coming in a couple of years and I’d like to get the benefit of that if I’m company A and so that spirit of innovation and competition does a couple of things, one – in the technology and in the capabilities that each of these teams might bring.

But then also in keeping each other honest in the price point, right? I mean, the price competition is really important. Like I mentioned, we’re not building one anymore. We’re building a couple of hundred and so you better be able to control cost or this thing gets basically untenable. And so, cost control is as important, maybe more important than the technology, because we can’t control cost, we can’t afford it, and we’ll have to go back to the traditional and more fragile way of doing things.

So a secondary advantage is any failure, a part that’s bad or something like that in any one line, in any one production line doesn’t affect the other one and so if there is some kind of problem like that, you’ve got some built in resilience as well. 

10:55 – 11:08
Then so what’s in it for the industry partner? Why should a commercial company – whether a legacy partner for the DOD or even a commercial space startup – be interested in partnering with the SDA on the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture or a program like it? 

11:09 – 11:59
You know, once you get onto a program like this – the government is a pretty good customer. It hangs around for a long time.

Now, this idea of continuous innovation and continuously re-competing each tranche adds a little bit of stress to that. But once the government is one of your customers, they’re pretty good customers. They pay on time, right? The credit’s good. And there’s a demand for technology that’s beyond the commercial marketplace and so it just ups the game of the companies, too, that are having to solve harder problems and then just being part of that “bigger than us” mission too is I think something that’s a good motivator.

But we’re going to do this. We’ve done the traditional method for sixty years, we’re going to do this for the next sixty years and so having that as a revenue stream if you’re a commercial company, is pretty good for your shareholders.

12:00 – 12:18
I’d like to circle back to the first part of our conversation – when we were discussing strategic deterrence against the traditional threat. With that in mind – as the threat has evolved, so it seems our missile warning architecture is evolving – so why is maintaining strategic deterrence in the space domain such a critical component to the DOD’s broader mission?

12:19 – 13:55
You know, in the Cold War days, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had satellites to do this job, to do missile warning. And it was seen to be – we had treaties – you are not to touch the other countries monitoring satellites because if they don’t know what you’re doing they’re going to make assumptions and those assumptions could very well be wrong and that could create a very bad day. This, again, is transparency, basically.

We know what you’re doing and you probably know what we’re doing, right? And let’s use that to calm the temperature. And because if people start guessing and start making assumptions, you know, that’s when strategic deterrence breaks down. 

The key thing is that there’s still a long way to go here. Tranche zero in the PWSA is testing out some of these simpler nodes and seeing to the very first order can we start to connect these things together and make them all work. But it is a hard problem.

We’ve got pretty great capability now. Unfortunately it’s fragile, but it took us sixty years to get here and so this won’t happen overnight. We won’t have, you know, immediate success overnight and so I think we all need to have patience and give this some time to see it mature and to see some of the spirals happening.

And then we’ll have to make some decisions. But I hope that it all works and we stay on the straight path. But that typically doesn’t happen, right? We’ll learn something. We’ll have to pivot in some other way. But this country is pretty good at innovating and overcoming tough challenges. So I’m confident in the long term.

13:56 – 14:15
You represent a consulting firm that is made up of a team of experts with decades of experience within national security space – but also in industry – how can Elara Nova bridge this gap between industry partners looking to participate in a program like this and the DOD in their search for developing this capability from the commercial sector?

14:16 – 15:28
I think the biggest thing that we can provide is education. You know, these kinds of conversations with what – where did this come from?

What happened to what the world we knew if we were building in the traditional environment, all the organizations have changed, all the ways that they’re approaching solving national security problems in space has changed. And so, the the talent pool that Elara Nova has to bring to any of our customers are the people who were there at the transition –  were there thinking up how to move from traditional and efficient and fragile to something more militarily effective, that we can we can deter and we can win at scale against a peer adversary.

So just understanding all those organizations how everything got rewired in the space world and national security space world is something we were all a part of. And we can not only bring that to the people who want to participate in things like the PWSA and a whole bunch of other things that are going on in national security space.

But we can also on the international front, there’s a lot of interest in other countries who are – ‘how do I also become a part of this?’

15:29 – 15:55
If you’re interested in learning more about the SDA’s approach to revolutionizing our missile warning architecture, visit our Insights page at
www.elaranova.com.  

This has been an episode of The Elara Edge: Expert Insights on Space Security. As a global consultancy and professional services firm focused on helping businesses and government agencies maximize the strategic advantages of the space domain, Elara Nova is your source for expertise and guidance in space security.

If you liked what you heard today, please subscribe to our channel and leave us a rating. This episode was edited and produced by Regia Multimedia Services. I’m your host, Scott King, and join us next time at The Elara Edge.