Can the Pentagon Unbundle Its Behemoth Space Systems?

Support for “disaggregation” of military satellites is getting louder

Satellite communications technicians conduct routine maintenance on a satellite dish at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr., USAF

“Disaggregation” is the word you want on your bingo card if you’re following the military satellite business these days. After spending decades focused on aggregation — that is, packing as many capabilities as they can onto one satellite to get the most bang for their buck in a single launch — the military is starting to think about reversing this trend. Disaggregation, then, is sending up less complex systems in smaller packages, but larger quantities. Threats of budget sequestration have allowed supporters, who argue this strategy will cut costs, to really turn up the volume.

Yesterday, the George C. Marshall Institute and the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council held a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. as a way to turn an idea into a full-blown conversation. The U.S. Air Force has already decided that 2015 is the go or no-go time for disaggregating two important space missions: secure communications (which includes nuclear command and control) and weather forecasting. Representatives from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Horizons Strategy Group (a consultant on security technology) spoke on the panel, along with the former director of space policy at the National Security Council.

There are three primary arguments for disaggregation: resiliency, promoting “tech refresh,” and affordability. A constellation of disaggregated satellites would be more resilient because if one was destroyed (by an enemy or otherwise), it would only affect that one system; whereas destruction of one of the current, larger milsats would be a massive blow to a whole host of systems. It would promote a constant refreshing of technology because lead times (and lifetimes) would be much shorter. As Horizons CEO Josh Hartman noted, instead of a satellite taking eight years to build, with a lifetime of up to 25 years — which inevitably saddles users with decades-old tech — a move to small, simple satellites that take only a year or two to build would let designers and engineers stay more current. And the potentially lower cost, meaning lower risk, of these satellites would let the engineers “push the envelope” and take chances on new technology.

Affordability seems like the easiest point to make, and this is hardly the first time someone has argued for smaller, cheaper military satellites. But not everyone agrees. Lockheed’s Marc Berkowitz held the mild dissenter’s seat at the table: “The assertion that disaggregation will save taxpayer money needs to be proven. More platforms means more launches to get them to orbit.” And while losing one small satellite is better than losing one massive satellite, Berkowitz pointed out that enemies might consider the risk for retribution lower for taking one down. Furthermore, the biggest obstacle toward disaggregation right now is simply that there isn’t really a plan for the transition, nor many models that actually analyze the resilience and cost factors. Essentially, supporters are just going by their instincts that smaller and faster is by definition better.

Hartman from Horizons explained that there are steps the military can take now to test some of these theories, most of which involve taking a current spacecraft that needs upgrades or repairs, and instead of fixing it, disaggregating it into smaller replacement satellites. Between now and 2015 the Pentagon can work on creating reliable models, based on these kinds of experiments, before deciding that swarms of smallsats are the way to go.


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