WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force plans to take its initial steps toward adopting a new military space architecture in 2015, a move service officials say is evident in a budget blueprint that tables procurement of two large secure communications satellites and funds development of a new generation of low-cost weather satellites.

The space portion of the Air Force’s 2015 budget request, unveiled March 4, also calls for slowing production of the service’s next-generation GPS 3 constellation and purchasing two fewer launches than had been expected.

In a March 5 briefing with reporters, Air Force officials said the upcoming fiscal year provided one of the first opportunities to act on the emerging architectural concept for military space called disaggregation, whereby capabilities are dispersed on a wider variety of platforms than currently is the case. These platforms could include smaller satellites and commercial satellites with accommodations for military payloads. 

“The Air Force is committed to disaggregation,” Eric Fanning, undersecretary of the Air Force, said during the briefing.

A prime candidate for disaggregation is the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system, a constellation of large satellites that provide highly secure communications links to both strategic and tactical forces. Disaggregation advocates have argued the Air Force could save money and reduce system vulnerability by deploying the tactical and strategic payloads, which have different requirements, on separate satellites. 

When the Air Force submitted its 2014 budget request last April, the accompanying five-year spending projection included plans to order a seventh and eighth AEHF satellite, likely from the program’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in 2018. In the out-year projection accompanying the 2015 request, in contrast, those two satellites are not included.

Although the omission is in part due to the fact that the on-orbit satellites are lasting longer than expected, it also gives the Air Force a window of opportunity to try a disaggregated approach. The Air Force will save about $2.1 billion by delaying the satellites, officials said. The budget also includes money for the evolution of AEHF capabilities, officials said.

Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry, director of space programs in the Air Force acquisition office, said the AEHF system represents the first opportunity to insert disaggregation into an existing program. 

The  Air Force is also proposing to reduce its planned procurement of GPS 3 navigation satellites in 2015, in part because of the longevity of the existing constellation. At this time last year, the Air Force was planning on buying two GPS 3 craft from Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver in 2015 at a cost of $225 million apiece. Now the service plans on buying just one, a change that McMurry acknowledged would result in a higher unit cost for the satellite.

Lockheed Martin is under contract to build eight GPS 3 satellites. The launch of the first of those satellites has slipped to 2016, McMurry said. 

“Over the next few weeks we will review the budget in detail to understand the specific impacts to our business. We look forward to working with the administration and Congress over the coming months as budget discussions continue,” said Gordon Johndroe, a Lockheed Martin spokesman.

The Air Force’s 2015 budget request also includes an unspecified amount of money to begin long-deferred development of a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites. Known as the Weather System Follow-On (WSF), the program would replace the long-running Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. 

“WSF will take a disaggregated system-of-systems approach to meet specific Department of Defense needs while leveraging near-term civilian and international partnerships,” Air Force budget documents said. “WSF will be comprised of a group of systems to provide timely, reliable, and high quality space-based remote sensing capabilities that meet global environmental observations of atmospheric, terrestrial, oceanographic, solar-geophysical and other validated requirements.”

The Air Force’s second-to-last Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite, Flight 19, is scheduled to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket in April. The Air Force has been studying options for a follow-on system ever since the cancellation in 2010 of an over-budget civil-military system.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has said the first of the new-generation weather satellites could launch around 2020.

Meanwhile, the Air Force plans to purchase two fewer launches than expected in 2015 under its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The service’s 2014 budget request outlined plans to buy five rockets at a cost of approximately $883 million in 2015. The documents accompanying the 2015 request indicate that the Air Force now plans to buy three launches during the year. 

“The EELV program has been aligned with satellite launch schedules in FY 2015,” the documents said. 

Further details of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 Pentagon budget request, including military space programs, are expected to be released as early as the week of March 10.

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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...