WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force expects to decide in 2015 whether to redesign some of its key space missions by dispersing payload sets currently flown aboard large satellite platforms to larger numbers of smaller craft, a senior service official said.

The disaggregation concept is being considered for two key space missions in particular: secure communications, including nuclear command and control; and weather forecasting, according to Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, the service’s Los Angeles-based space hardware procurement shop, is in the midst of studies that will inform the decision, Shelton said, adding that some service officials have been pushing to move toward disaggregation as soon as this year.

A decision in favor of disaggregation could have a dramatic impact on one of the Air Force’s biggest unclassified space programs: the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) series of secure, jam-proof communications satellites built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif. The multibillion-dollar program provides nuclear command and control — during a nuclear war, the president would communicate via AEHF with national leaders and strategic forces — and also serves tactical forces who cannot risk detection.

The strategic and tactical links are handled by different payloads aboard each AEHF satellite, and the Air Force is considering taking those and launching them separately aboard smaller spacecraft, a move that likely would require revamping program. Disaggregation could make the Air Force’s secure communications capabilities more resilient to enemy attacks, but could drive up the cost of the military’s secure communications capability, Shelton said.

Mark Calassa, Lockheed Martin’s AEHF program manager, said disaggregation is not a “magic bullet” that will yield the same capability as AEHF at half the cost. Lockheed Martin spent many years getting the recipe right on AEHF and now is not the time to abandon the program, he said.

The Air Force currently has two AEHF satellites on orbit and operational — the second in the series successfully completed on-orbit testing Sept. 24. Lockheed Martin has two more satellites under full-scale construction and has ordered long-lead components for an additional two.

Lockheed Martin is supporting the AEHF disaggregation studies but at the same time believes the Air Force should focus on cutting costs on the existing program of record, Calassa said.

Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Redondo Beach, Calif., builds the AEHF communications payloads. In a written response to SpaceNews questions, the company said it has been investing in ways to provide low-cost protected military satellite communications.

Stuart Linsky, Northrop Grumman Aerospace vice president of communication systems, cited the Enhanced Polar System, which features extremely high frequency payloads hosted aboard classified satellites in polar orbit, as an example of its ability to make protected communications payloads more scalable and affordable. “Given the government’s and industry’s investments made in the past decade, tactical protected [military satellite communications] can now be delivered at about the same cost as unprotected” communications, he said.

Josh Hartman, a former Pentagon space policy official and currently a principal at the Center for Strategic Space Studies here, said he does not understand why the Air Force is waiting until 2015 to decide whether to disaggregate. The concept has been under consideration since at least 2009, he said.

“We shouldn’t be prolonging this debate and discussion,” Hartman said during a Nov. 9 telephone interview. “The truth is we can’t afford to do anything but disaggregation, both from an acquisition and budgetary perspective. Disaggregation has many, many advantages that outweigh many of the advantages of Battlestar Galacticas.”

“Battlestar Galacticas” is a commonly used space industry reference to a science fiction television series that featured giant spaceships with capabilities analogous to modern aircraft carriers.

It is important to start putting together a transition plan now for disaggregation, said Hartman, who during his time in government was an advocate of quick-reaction missions featuring small, low-cost spacecraft that could be built and launched on relatively short notice. The space community is wasting energy by continuing to discuss the subject, he said.

Disaggregating AEHF makes sense because not all of its payloads require hardening against nuclear radiation, Hartman said. It also makes sense to disaggregate the weather mission because it can be very challenging to integrate multiple sensors aboard a single platform, he said.

Currently the Air Force does not have a weather satellite program in development or production but is studying alternatives for a next-generation system.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank, said previous Air Force weather satellite programs were canceled because the planned sensor combination proved too complex. Dispersing  the sensors among a large number of spacecraft sounds like a cheaper solution, he said.

Peter Marquez, former director of space policy for the White House National Security Council, said he supports a disaggregation concept for major Air Force space programs. Marquez, currently at Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., cautioned, however, that it is important to educate the military on how to use disaggregated satellite architectures.