The U.S. Department of Defense’s high-level technology incubation arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was formed in early 1958 in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial Earth satellite: Sputnik 1. Now, DARPA officials are seeing the viability of the Soviet Union’s space program nearly seven decades ago reflected in what China is producing and offering today.
“That story of the history of DARPA is starting to take on some personal weight on the shoulders of myself and the agency,” said Rob McHenry, the agency’s deputy director, during a panel discussion at the Potomac Officers Club’s 2023 Annual Navy Summit on June 21, moderated by Leidos‘ Frank Pandolfe. McHenry was sure to note, however, that while China is demonstrating technology that is leaving U.S. officials unable to comprehend “how they’re able to do it,” this knowledge is decidedly not being met with defeat but as a challenge to rise above.
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Fellow panelist Ben McNeal, director of U.S. Air Force and Space Force strategy and sales at Red Hat, shared that the Chinese were among the first to launch a quantum-based satellite into orbit. Thus, one of the top priorities the U.S. must have for shortening the kill chain is doubling down on quantum development.
Shortening the kill chain, McNeal says, means “we have to make real-time warfighting decisions, enhance non-penetrable missile warning capabilities and missile shield response systems. Analytic based remote sensing and collecting for data is also very key.”
The other two top priorities the DOD should coalesce around in addition to quantum are automation and application modernization and delivery. The latter tenet, per McNeal, as it relates to satellites, involves centralizing the “stovepiped” functionality of the 3,000 active satellites in orbit, which currently comprise “a lot of disparate information systems.” The Red Hat exec and former Navy program manager feels that there is a need to have those satellites talk to each other more—the optimization of their networks is critical.
McNeal and McHenry’s discussion partner, Michael Stewart is the executive director of the Unmanned Task Force at the Navy, an outfit designed to combat some of these very problems, attempting to “think of new ways to actually innovate, go faster, [establish] cross-functional teams, minimal viable products, [instigate] commercial adoption.” The “go faster” part is important, because Stewart says “speed matters,” especially with a situation like aiding Ukraine but also in the great power competition with China, who he terms as a disruptor. So the UTF is “compressing the acquisition cycle” on products from “years to months.”
A similarly market-oriented approach is being taken by DARPA via the Space Watch program, “which is using the existing star trackers on [Low Earth Orbit] satellites to provide a commercial market to provide space domain awareness for LEO constellations,” McHenry commented. The deputy director additionally said his agency is looking toward a new realm just beyond LEO in order to potentially outpace China: Very Low Earth Orbit.
“It’s a very intriguing space where you get sort of the best capabilities of both satellites and aircraft…you have a solar-powered, continuously propelled, maneuverable satellite-like system—that opens up a lot of very interesting operational capability,” McHenry said. Perhaps this, along with a number of other things DARPA is cooking up, is what the U.S. needs to gain a leg up in the contested space domain.