WASHINGTON — Dividing the payloads that currently fly on large U.S. military satellites, and launching them separately on smaller craft, might offer the Pentagon more flexibility in an era of uncertain budgets, but a panel of space policy experts disagreed on the long-term cost benefits of this approach.

The concept, referred to in the space community as “disaggregation,” is under consideration by the U.S. Air Force, whose operational satellites tend to be large, complex and expensive. Disaggregation is not a new idea, but it has gathered momentum amid declining U.S. defense budgets and heightened awareness of the vulnerability of large satellite platforms.

During a Jan. 30 panel discussion here sponsored by the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council and the George C. Marshall Institute, experts largely agreed that the Air Force should continue to study and eventually test the disaggregation concept. They also agreed that the future U.S. military space architecture should include a mix of large and small platforms.

But they disagreed about the cost benefits, which have often been cited as a primary justification for moving to smaller satellite platforms.

Josh Hartman, chief executive of Horizon Strategies Group, a consulting agency here, said as money for space projects becomes more scarce, buying and designing satellite parts “by the bag-full, not by the truck-full” would prove prudent. He said the budget environment may lead to an era where Air Force officials may not get everything they want in a project but may have to accept “good enough,” which is better suited to smaller satellites.

Marc Berkowitz, vice president of strategic planning for Lockheed Martin, said he was skeptical such changes would save money in the long run.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., is prime contractor on the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system of highly secure communications satellites, which the Air Force has singled out as a prime candidate for disaggregation.

The Pentagon has tended to build large, multimission satellites precisely because it is economical to do so, Berkowitz said. This happens, in part because only one launch vehicle is needed to get that capability on orbit.

The idea that launching higher numbers of smaller satellites will save money has yet to be proven, he said, and without cost savings, disaggregation makes little sense.

But the panel agreed cost should not be the only factor in judging the merits of disaggregation.

Peter Marquez, former director of space policy for the White House National Security Council, pointed to a potential improvement in technology. He said more frequent launches may enable the Air Force to more quickly fine tune its on-orbit capabilities in a dynamic budgetary and threat environment. This is difficult with large, complex platforms, which take many years to develop and — in part because of their high cost — are counted on to last many years in orbit.

Marquez likened the current large platform philosophy to walking into a restaurant with the idea that you were not going to eat for 15 days and then ordering everything on the menu.

Proponents of disaggregation also argued that larger satellite constellations are more robust against attacks. Their logic holds that it is easier to take out a single, large satellite than multiple smaller ones. China is known to be developing anti-satellite capabilities and in 2007 conducted a test in which it destroyed one of its own satellites with a ground-launched missile.

But Berkowitz countered that an enemy determined to neutralize U.S. space capabilities will not be deterred just because the job gets more difficult or time consuming. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves,” he said.

Air Force leaders are expected to make a decision on how they will use disaggregation in 2015.

Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...