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Benefits Weighed of "Disaggregation" for Military Space Systems

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 30-Jan-2013
Updated: 30-Jan-2013 10:05 PM

At an event this morning focused on parsing out the pros and cons of disaggregation, the latest buzzword to hit the military space community, experts called for an evolved and mixed approach to military constellations.

Hosted by TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council and the George C. Marshall Institute, “Disaggregation in the Era of Austerity: A Path Forward,” was meant to examine the pros and cons of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) adopting disaggregation of its satellite constellations, a process the organizers described as dispersing payload sets currently flown aboard large satellite platforms to large numbers of smaller craft. This concept is not new, as some of the panelists noted, but one that has caught the attention of stakeholders in the community as a way to address critical challenges, particularly ongoing fiscal constraints.

Declining budgets was one of three reasons that, according to Peter Marquez, George C. Marshall Institute Fellow and former director of space policy at the National Security Council, prompted stakeholders to look at this approach in the first place. He listed an emerging threat environment that urges increased resiliency and deterrence, a fragile industrial base and concerns for technology obsolescence, as other key drivers. Outlining the assumed benefits of disaggregation to each of these, Marquez said that this approach could likely help reduce lifecycle costs and provide support to the industrial base. He explained that the continuous production cycles that would be required to develop and launch these smaller systems could imbue realism into the requirements community, traditionally used to planning for large systems developed every 15 years,  and lead to a “higher technology refresh rate” that would combat technology obsolescence. Marquez suggested that this process could lead to reduced lifecycle costs, much like the way that increased production by Henry Ford made car prices more affordable. The goal ought to be, he said, not to adopt disaggregation in all systems, since “large systems have their place,” but instead to seek greater diversification.

William P. (Bill) Reiner, Director of Missions and Programs of Commercial Satellite Services at Boeing, emphasized disaggregation as an opportunity for more flexibility as military missions change. “We don’t know in two years who we’re going to be fighting,” he said, pointing out that planning for 15 years into the future may no longer make sense. He said that disaggregation could break apart the dependence on aggregate satellites and may allow the DOD to look at new acquisition practices, adopting a more “commercial-like” way of buying smaller satellites and thus incurring in cost-savings. He supported adopting a mix of approaches, with the end goal to find ways to be “more responsive, resilient and cost-effective.”

Josh Hartman, CEO of the Horizons Strategy Group and principal of the Center for Strategic Space Studies (CS3), who has spoken in favor of disaggregation before, said that the “status quo cannot continue to persist.” The disaggregation discussion is about recognizing that the “one-size-fits-all mentality” is not serving the military space community well, he argued. Instead of a systems approach he called for adopting an architectural approach, best described as “elegant simplicity.” He framed the benefits of such an approach in similar terms to what Marquez outlined, providing survivability and resilience, technology refresh, and affordability.

Hartman added that each mission area – positoning, navigation and timing (PNT) or geospatial intelligence, for example – should be examined to consider which specific capabilities could be disaggregated and how. Disaggregating weather may be promising, he suggested, saying that multiple stakeholders, such as the scientific and operational communities in the civil side, could be better served by separating sensors into various platforms.  Hartman concluded by outlining intermediary steps that could be taken to advance disaggregation, such as complementing existing architectures, while funds are allocated for this purpose, likely in the FY2015 DOD budget.

Voicing more caution than his counterparts for the widespread adoption of disaggregation, Marc Berkowitz, vice president of strategic planning at Lockheed Martin, said that spacecraft size is determined by a number of factors, including validated requirements and economic constraints, and that the community should not rule out big systems, but adopt whatever size best addresses the specific mission.  He said that the assertion that disaggregation will lead to cost savings should be validated. In fact, he argued, disaggregation may lead to higher costs as a result of more launches and more command and control requirements. He emphasized that his element of affordability be carefully examined and that metrics for resiliency be developed to better assess the best way to improve it.

Panelists agreed that moving ahead should involve carrying out studies to address some of these concerns while at the same time also testing the applicability of disaggregation to specific mission areas at a small scale. Marquez cautioned that changing major architectures without better understanding mission areas and requirements would be “foolish.” At the same time, Hartman said that simply carrying out studies would be “a waste of time” and he urged for tangible results that will help the community understand how best to adopt disaggregation to meet evolving needs.


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