DARPA Blackjack: Who’ll Get Prized Satellite Tech, Air Force Or SDA?

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Everybody wants Blackjack. The DARPA program, meant to demonstrate how the military can use commercially-derived technology for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, is slated to make the transition out of the DARPA-run tech demo phase and into an actual acquisition program in 2022. But who will get to run it?




Both the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and the Pentagon’s brand-new Space Development Agency (SDA) are laying plans to transition Blackjack’s technology into their own acquisition programs. It’ll be a high-stakes test case for whether the two agencies will cooperate or clash.

“SMC is currently partnered with DARPA and providing funding for Blackjack. When Blackjack is proven successful, SMC is planning a transition of the architecture to a program called CASINO [Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations],” Col. Dennis Bythewood, Program Executive Officer for Space Development at SMC, told me in a Friday evening email statement. “SMC is also working with the newly created SDA to define roles and responsibilities and how our respective efforts will complement each other. SMC is committed to continued partnership with DARPA and SDA to provide future capabilities to the warfighter.”

However, speaking at the 2019 Space Symposium, SDA chief Fred Kennedy waxed enthusiastic about his agency’s intentions to take up Blackjack when it comes to fruition. SDA is heavily focusing on the same basket of “proliferated LEO” missions in its “notional architecture” scheme that DARPA is trying to prove feasible with Blackjack. In fact, in early March Pentagon chief of research and development Mike Griffin(whose shop oversees SDA) mentioned Blackjack as one of SDA’s cornerstone inputs. In particular, Kennedy explained to me last week, he is keenly interested in the potential for incorporating Blackjack’s demonstrated capabilities into a future LEO missile tracking layer (a huge priority for Griffin, BTW). But, he added, “Anything it does, I can build on it.”

So, who’s on first? Are we looking at a potential food fight between SDA and SMC? Remember, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has had nothing good to say about SDA. She has instead touted the revamped SMC as all that is needed to speed space acquisition. But Wilson is out come May.

Meanwhile, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan — who shows every sign of staying — has given SDA a number of special authorities to bypass standard DoD acquisition rules in order to move quickly to snare commercially available capabilities.

Show Me The Money

Right now it’s hard to say where Blackjack will end up, as neither SMC’s CASINO nor SDA actually have dedicated funding to take it over.

A DARPA spokesperson explained in an email: “The DARPA program manager for Blackjack (Rusty Thomas) is working with the USAF and DoD agencies to define the transition path.”

SMC has been working since last year on how to ‘adopt’ Blackjack as a ‘real boy’ when DARPA wraps it up at the end of 2022. (DARPA programs are designed as tech demos that, if successful, are then picked up by a service as a formal RTD&E/procurement program). SMC’s interest was goaded in no small part by Congress, who infused $25 million into the Air Force FY2019 budget specifically for Blackjack.

SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson testified to the SASC Strategic Forces subcommittee on March 27 that CASINO, which would move Blackjack into the Air Force, is now one of nine key “pacesetter” programs under SMC’s initiative to speed acquisitions (known as SMC 2.0). “The SMC pacesetter effort, known as CASINO  will expand the efforts” of Blackjack, “to increase resilience by disaggregating various mission capabilities using large, Low Earth Orbit constellations,” he said.

  • Further, about a month ago, Aerospace Corporation posted a job opening in its El Segundo office for the CASINO Project Manager that included the following duties:
  • Engineering and technical lead for the Air Force’s Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations (CASINO) Program
  • Leverage lessons from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) Blackjack program
  • Support CASINO requirements and architecture definition/implementation and enterprise integration studies
  • Establish CASINO Integrated Product Team (IPT) structure and systems engineering processes
  • Assist in the acquisition strategy, and development of request for proposal documentation
  • Cultivate collaboration across SMC 2.0 organizational structure, DARPA, Air Force Research Laboratories and numerous other government, commercial, and defense industrial base entities.

One non-trivial problem: the Air Force has no funds for CASINO in fiscal 2020 or in the out years of the future-year defense plan (FYDP) for 2020-2024. The FY2020 Air Force budget justification documents show an empty line for Blackjack under the Space Systems Prototype Transitions (SSPT) budget line (PE 1206427F). Sources involved with CASINO and Blackjack tell me that SMC asked for $350 million in the FYDP for CASINO and the Blackjack transition, but did not get it. (It is not clear to me at this point whether it was Air Force, Pentagon or White House budgetmeisters who wielded the knife.) SMC did not comment on the funding issue, and Aerospace referred me to SMC for comment.

For his part, Kennedy, for his part, assured me that there is “no tug of war” between SDA and SMC over Blackjack’s future. Rather, he was adamant that SDA “intends to work with the Air Force, DARPA, the IC and any other stakeholders to ensure Blackjack outputs” are integrated into the future national security space architecture. Further, SDA currently is looking at a budget of only about $150 million in FY2020 to get the office stood up and to put SDA on track accomplish Kennedy’s goal of putting up its first satellites (for data relay for MDA) in FY2022.

Under Blackjack, DARPA hopes to have successfully launched 20 demonstration satellites with a variety of experimental payloads based on a ‘standardized’ commercially-provided satellite bus by the end of fiscal 2022, according to the agency’s website. DARPA asked for $25 million for the project in FY2020, up from $16.4 million the previous year.

DARPA’s latest contract solicitation for the advanced software system for the constellation (called Pit Boss) explains further: “The Blackjack demonstration program will investigate the incorporation of multiple functional layers and payload phenomenologies into a unified data collection and distribution architecture. These layers are expected to include overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensors, Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) payloads for Global Positioning System (GPS) augmentation, radio frequency (RF) and optical communications, including direct connectivity with tactical users from LEO, multiple tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance payloads, and all-weather, multi-domain asset geolocation, identification, characterization, and tracking.”

In the end, it likely will be Congress, as it takes up the Pentagon FY2020 budget request, who ultimately decides where Blackjack ends up. As noted, Congress has in past years tried to push Blackjack more rapidly into the arms of the Air Force. With SDA now online, who knows where their (often fickle) Cupid’s arrow will land? But all things considered, the fate of Blackjack is at a minimum a test of how well SDA and SMC will be able to work together instead of wasting their energy on turf wars. Watch this space.