DARPA bets big on ‘Blackjack’ to make satellites more secure

DARPA bets big on ‘Blackjack’ to make satellites more secure

Published
The proposed "Blackjack" low orbital satellite system aims to improve global surveillance and communications and possibly conduct space-based battle management. (DARPA illustration)

WASHINGTON — The defense authorization bill being debated this week by the Senate includes millions in additional funds to accelerate and deploy an in-orbit demonstration of a military missile warning network proponents say is critical to missile defense — and long overdue.

The key reason for the funding surge: the Pentagon’s urgency to replace existing larger satellites that could more easily be targeted by enemies — and taken out with no backups in place — with a panoply of more numerous, smaller, more resilient systems that would be easier to repair or replace if they came under electronic, direct or kinetic attack.

The Air Force has said the program is an imperative to moving cutting-edge commercial space technology into the military — a gap the Pentagon has been trying to close to keep pace with China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

The Pentagon had requested $15 million for the program, despite the Air Force asking for an additional $50 million. The Senate Armed Services Committed added another $110 million.

DARPA — the military’s innovation and research arm — will lead initial development and engineering work. Once prototype systems are ready, the Air Force would continue the project — unless a new U.S. Space Force has been created.

In a release, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said it is reviewing bids in June from vendors as it sets out to prove that there are cheaper, more agile alternatives to traditional military satellites. The project name is Blackjack.

“Blackjack will develop and demonstrate a low earth orbit constellation that provides global persistent coverage,” DARPA said in its solicitation for bids. “The program is an architecture demonstration intending to show the high military utility of global LEO (systems).”

LEO stands for “Low Earth Orbit.” That is an altitude between 99 miles and 1,200 miles.

DARPA has warned about the threat to the older system for years. Transitioning to smaller and less costly “platforms” — as they are called in the military — has been a DARPA priority.

In March, the head of DARPA, Steven Walker, told defense reporters that DARPA would take a hard look at the commercial space industry’s mass production of smaller, sophisticated satellites and launch vehicles that have high quality but lower costs.

“The more satellites in the system, the harder it will be for the enemy to take it down, the thinking goes,” Walker said then. He said the current defense space architecture is “expensive, vulnerable, and technologically aging.”

DARPA said in its request for proposals that companies can offer systems from existing or in-development production lines if those systems can “accommodate a wide range of military payload types without redesign or retooling of the production line for each payload.”

The systems also should be easily adaptable to various unspecified Pentagon programs without requiring a redesign, DARPA said.

Initially Blackjack will center on global surveillance and communications, according to Pentagon officials. However under DARPA’s vision the scope could expand to include possible space-based battle management and offensive strikes.

DARPA plans to award $117.5 million in contracts over three phases for up to eight systems or or payload suppliers, according to its posting. DARPA said other contacts will be offered in the future for adjunct needs for the system.

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