The head of the Space Development Agency said he expects to begin demonstrating space-to-ground Link 16 connectivity over the U.S. by the end of the year — as long as the agency secures long-awaited approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Link 16 is a commonly used military signal SDA satellites will use to connect to radios on the ground. U.S. forces, NATO and international allies rely on the capability for real-time data exchange.

The agency has been working with the FAA to get approval to test Link 16 over national airspace, but the process has taken longer than anticipated.

“Primarily, the FAA wants to make sure that we have compatibility features that are tested on our satellites so that we can’t interfere with any radio navigation aids,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said during a March 6 Space News webinar. “That makes sense, and we’re working with the FAA to get a plan in place to do that.”

The Defense Department established SDA in 2019 to build a constellation of low Earth orbit transport and missile tracking satellites on rapid timelines, augmenting constellations of large spacecraft with hundreds of small, relatively low-cost satellites. Those spacecraft make up what SDA calls its Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture and will serve as the data backbone for joint, multidomain command-and-control capabilities.

After launching its first satellites last April, SDA had hoped to move quickly to validate the capability and integrate it as part of large-scale Defense Department exercises, like Northern Edge — a joint training event conducted in the Gulf of Alaska.

Instead, the agency opted to perform initial tests over international waters, starting in November. During the initial demonstration, three satellites built by Denver-based York Space Systems transmitted signals from low Earth orbit — about 1,200 miles above Earth — to an international test site.

The Air Force’s 46th Test Squadron supported the mission from the ground.

SDA now has 27 satellites in orbit. Those spacecraft are not only equipped to communicate through Link 16, but also have what are called optical inter-satellite links that allow them to share data with one another.

SDA first tested those inter-satellite links in 2021 during a demonstration mission with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency called Mandrake. Tournear said the agency has begun to test the capability with the first batch of satellites it launched and expects to expand that across the constellation later this summer.

As the agency works to test and demonstrate the capabilities of its first tranche of satellites, it’s also preparing for its next launches, which are expected to begin in September. That mission will set off a nearly yearlong campaign to launch around 161 satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

“We expect to have at least one of those launches by the end of this calendar year and then the rest will essentially be as fast as we can get them through the payload processing facilities,” Tournear said.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

More In Space