Critstina Chaplain. Credit: SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — Less than a week after the U.S. Air Force unveiled a 2015 budget request that senior officers hailed as a step toward a new military space architecture known as disaggregation, government officials raised doubts about the approach, with one suggesting it might not save money and questioning whether the Air Force has the funds to even try it out.

“There isn’t much money to enhance constellations, much less change architectures,” said Steven Miller, director of advanced systems cost analysis in the U.S. defense secretary’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office.

Miller was speaking during a panel discussion at the Satellite 2014 conference here that was focused on two related elements of the disaggregation strategy: increased dependence on commercial satellites, and use of those satellites to host dedicated military payloads.

Generally speaking, disaggregation is the idea of dispersing military space capabilities on a wider variety of platforms than is the case in the current architecture, in which these capabilities tend to be concentrated on large platforms.

While Air Force leaders, including Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, and Eric Fanning, a service undersecretary, have spoken forcefully in favor of disaggregation and its ability to increase constellation resiliency, Miller was more cautious and pointed to already restrained space budgets.

Miller was not alone in his skepticism. Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management of the Government Accountability Office, which is conducting a study of disaggregation, said the review’s preliminary results indicate that the Defense Department “doesn’t have the knowledge it needs to make those kinds of commitments.”

The Air Force is conducting a series of studies to look at nearly every aspect of its space portfolio moving into the future. The results from many of those studies are expected later this year.

Fanning, in a March 5 briefing with reporters, pointed to the fiscal year 2015 budget request that tables procurement of two large secure communications satellites and funds development of a new generation of low-cost weather satellites as the first steps toward a disaggregated space portfolio.

But the panelists offered a sobering reminder of how slow change may come.

Chaplain said recent budgets suggest the Defense Department is not adequately planning for a wholesale shift.

“These types of changes require long-term planning, long-term thought,” she said. But with the recent budget challenges, including continuing resolutions and the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, “[I]t’s almost all short-term planning.”

Miller said one common assumption behind disaggregation, that dispersing capabilities across a larger number of platforms makes them less vulnerable to attack, is a simplistic notion. “It hasn’t been thought through,” he said.

“We’ve never been able to prove it’s a better deal for us,” Miller said of hosted payloads in particular. However, he offered, “If what you’re after is a fraction of a satellite, I think you can make a business case.

Meanwhile, Navy Capt. Jon Kennedy, chief of the commercial satellite communications division of the Defense Information Systems Agency, questioned whether the Defense Department would save as much money as industry officials claim by agreeing to longer-term leases for commercial satellite capacity. Currently the Pentagon uses commercial capacity for some 60 percent of its satellite telecommunications needs, but procures most of that capacity via short-term leases.

Kennedy said there has been “an abundance of anecdotal evidence” but no proof that the Pentagon would achieve 40 percent or more savings by using long-term leases, a reference to a figure often cited by commercial satellite operators.

Industry representatives, in a sentiment echoed at sessions throughout the day, said one of the major obstacles to increasing Pentagon reliance on commercial capabilities is cultural. Both Miller and Chaplain agreed the culture of the Defense Department is slow to make changes and give up control.

When Kay Sears, the president of Intelsat General and the moderator of the panel, asked about the possibility of the Defense Department relying almost exclusively on commercial satellite communications services, Chaplain said, “There would be a reluctance of going away from the current way of doing things.”

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.