Satellites like Lockheed's Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system are highly capable, but if the Air Force has its way, they would give way to smaller, more dispersed systems. (Lockheed Martin)
WASHINGTON — Air Force Space Command has released a new white paper laying out its argument for moving towards a new architecture for military space programs.
That strategy, known as “disaggregation,” has been promoted for some time by Gen. William Shelton, the head of Space Command. But this document, released Aug. 21, provides the clearest look yet at how the Pentagon views its future space strategy.
“The threat environment has changed extraordinarily, and we must adapt critical US capabilities if our operational advantage is to endure,” wrote the uncredited authors of the paper.
The Air Force defines disaggregation as “the dispersion of space-based missions, functions or sensors across multiple systems spanning one or more orbital plane, platform, host or domain.” In simpler terms, the idea behind disaggregation is to take the capability that has been crammed into a small number of highly-capable satellites and spread them across a much wider number of platforms.
Space systems are still structured on a Cold War-era strategy, where the threat to space assets was seen as highly unlikely. Such an attack would have triggered “mutually assured destruction” between the NATO powers, led by the United States, and the communist bloc, led by the USSR.
But the 21st century has seen space grow more crowded, both with new players and with half a century of accumulated space debris. Modern threats to satellites include kinetic weapons, laser interference, signal jamming and cyber attacks, as well as the persistent danger from space debris. Losing even one of these advanced satellites could prove crippling to the US defense structure — not just from a capabilities standpoint, but from a cost perspective.
Creating networks of satellites to replace large single systems would correspond with a significant increase in resilience in case a satellite is lost, the paper stated.
Disaggregation is not just a defensive strategy. It could have potentially huge benefits, both from a fiscal and technological perspective.
Financially, an increase in the number of satellites being produced would be a boon for US industry, which would no longer find itself starting and stopping its production lines. Instead, it would have a steady rate of production, which in turn could lower cost per unit. Additionally, having more systems would create opportunities for multiple companies to take part in satellite production, and being able to launch multiple systems at once could drive down launch costs.
Creating smaller systems would also lead to more opportunities to refresh the technology in space. Current systems have a developmental lifespan of up to 14 years, and often last a decade or longer once launched. While it is possible to update software, the capabilities of the satellites are mostly locked in place once they are launched. Moving to a disaggregated architecture, with multiple units going up over time, would mean that satellites can have much more relevant technology during their lifespan.
The white paper does acknowledge potential challenges, including the logistical challenge of moving complex systems from space-based platforms to ground-based parts of the system. It would also require greater flexibility in the acquisitions budget in order to keep up with modern technologies. Some in industry have also expressed concern about whether disaggregation would work in a real-world setting.
Despite those potential roadblocks, the service seems to have decided that a disaggregated architecture is the way forward for military space. And given the long-lead times needed for space platforms, the Pentagon likely needs to commit soon.
“If the premise is accepted that national security space assets with someday be attacked, then we have a military and moral obligation to examine protective measures that minimize this risk and protect our nation’s warfighters, citizens, and economy,” the paper concludes. “Standing still in an environment populated with intelligent adversaries seeking to contest our leaderships in space and the operational advantages it affords is a strategy for falling behind.”