This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
The increasingly likely prospect of deep cuts in federal spending forced by failure of the U.S. Congress to thwart the sequestration of funds has Pentagon managers taking yet another look at spacecraft disaggregation. Under the circumstances, the notion that breaking massive, multifunction Cold War-style defense and intelligence satellites into smaller platforms can save money is understandably appealing. But on closer examination, it is not that simple. While there are military advantages to scattering military sensors and relays across space, and possibly technology/industrial base plusses too, it remains to be seen that it will be cheaper to do so.
"Disaggregation is probably the latest buzzword-bingo center square in Washington," says Peter Marquez, a former director of space policy at the National Security Council. "It seems that if you're going to talk about budgets or threats, the answer is always disaggregation. Sometimes I think we know the answer, but we forgot the question."
Appearing in a panel discussion on the subject sponsored by the George Marshall Institute, of which he is a fellow, Marquez argued that using smaller satellites for national security might be a way to avoid the built-in obsolescence that has plagued the Battlestar Galactica approach to milsats, which take so long and cost so much to build that better technology becomes available before launch, but too late to incorporate.
Another plus could be the targeting problems that splitting up space assets into more platforms could cause any power -- read China, in the wake of past performance in the anti-satellite arena -- that wants to disrupt U.S. space capability. Like the hope that disaggregation could help technology advance, the targeting argument is ambiguous. Panelists at the Marshall Institute symposium noted that combining sensors on a platform that includes missile early warning, or other strategic sensors, could have a "bodyguard" effect. An adversary probably would think twice before attacking something in space that could trigger a nuclear response on the ground.
As the Cold War superpowers work to loosen their strategic trip wires, that argument probably holds less water today than it perhaps did. But Marquez identified another downside of the capability equation: the possibility that a particular spacecraft won't be available when it is needed, although the technology is being upgraded.
"I wouldn't want to be in my old job and go into the national security adviser and say 'you know what we did last year, how we saw that missile launch? We're not going to be able to do that in five years,'" Marquez says. "That's not a good place to be."
But with today's funding uncertainty, Marquez's successors at the White House may find themselves in just that position as funding dwindles. Launch costs would almost certainly go up with disaggregation, if only because there would be more spacecraft to launch to sustain a disaggregated constellation. And because the military usually seems to find a way to jack up the cost of anything it does through gold-plating, turf-fighting and labyrinthine bureaucracy, there is no guarantee that those same factors will not play havoc with disaggregation.
Unfortunately, weather observation from space is one area the Pentagon is studying as an early candidate for disaggregation. Along with its civilian partners in the military/civil National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (Npoess) -- NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- military managers quickly learned that a good idea for cost-saving can quickly turn into another overrun. In that case, big definitely wasn't better, and the program finally fell apart after its $6.5 billion cost roughly doubled.
"To put nine sensors on the biggest bus Northrop Grumman has ever built is a really difficult integration task," says Joshua Hartman, CEO of Horizons Strategy Group and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space and intelligence. "And that's after we solved the development of each of those nine sensors. We were asking them to do things that were very difficult to do. Pete Rustan used to talk about how a program should only have one or two miracles, and eight or nine miracles is not a good way to manage a . . . space acquisition program."
That isn't likely to happen again soon, Hartman says, because funding will be too tight. Research and development programs aimed at disaggregation in the $100-$200 million range may be possible, but not big "transformation" projects as in the past. "This is a long-term process that's going to take place over the next 10 to 15 years," he says.