WASHINGTON — The U.S. military’s dependence on space capabilities is an “Achilles Heel” that should be addressed through the adoption of more-resilient, distributed satellite constellations, a concept commonly referred to as disaggregation, U.S. Air Force Space Command said in a recently released white paper. 

The document represents another step in the Air Force’s escalating embrace of the new satellite philosophy as it prepares to position its space assets for the next decade.

The report, titled “Resiliency and Disaggregated Space Architectures,” says disaggregation is a way for the Air Force to preserve the United States’ operational advantage in space. Generally, disaggregation is an emerging vision for space that favors smaller, less complex satellites, hosted payloads and a series of other reforms over larger, more complex systems that have been the standard for several decades.

Released Aug. 21, the paper points to the demand for change in plain language and echoes much of what Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has been preaching for months: the need to increase the resiliency of increasingly vulnerable space assets. “Today, our current space architectures are vulnerable to attack,” the paper said. 

The document provides one of the most detailed Air Force descriptions of disaggregation to date and tracks the need to change its dependance on space back to the first Persian Gulf war.

“Space systems were increasingly viewed as critical to U.S. conventional power,” the report said. “Combined with the fact that space capabilities are provided by a few, relatively vulnerable satellite architectures, led to the assessment that U.S. reliance on space was a potential Achilles Heel.”

In recent years Shelton has talked about disaggregation, at least in passing, for several existing space-based capabilities including missile warning, navigation and protected communications. 

Both Shelton and the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in April that preliminary results from studies suggest disaggregation would in fact save the service money.

A shift to more dispersed satellites and sensors would also make it harder for an enemy to take out key space capabilities.

“Disaggregation is an innovative opportunity to stay ahead of our adversaries, to change their targeting calculus, and to mitigate the effects of a widespread attack on our space assets,” the report said. “In addition, resilience serves as a deterrent, which may be the best way to preserve our capability by avoiding an attack.”

In response to the white paper, Mark Valerio, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Military Space business, pointed to a recently completed Lockheed Martin study of the nation’s resiliency in space. 

“We support the Air Force in their efforts to look at this issue closely,” Valerio said. “There is no perfect solution, so careful analysis of our nation’s mission requirements needs to be done and we are trying to help.”

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...