GAO: U.S. Air Force Needs More Info Before Committing to Disaggregation

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WASHINGTON — A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says that distributed satellite constellations, a concept currently in vogue with Air Force space leaders, may solve some problems for the Defense Department but would also create new difficulties.

A transition to smaller satellites could lead to increased costs at a time when budgets are tight, would require a reimagination of launch possibilities and would face cultural obstacles within the Defense Department, where such a shift is not viewed as urgent, the GAO said.

The report, “Additional Knowledge Would Better Support Decisions about Disaggregating Large Satellites,” provides a more nuanced look than a white paper the Air Force published last yeararguing disaggregation would help keep the United States ahead of adversaries in a quickly evolving space environment.

The GAO identified several benefits, including the potential for an improved acquisition process, but said the Defense Department needs more information before the Air Force makes decisions about its future satellite architecture.

“Until more knowledge is gained, disaggregation will not only remain inconclusive, but poorly informed decisions could be made in the interim,” the report said.

Air Force Space Command is currently leading a series of studies on the service’s next-generation technologies. Specifically, the Air Force is expected to wrap up studies on its missile warning and protected communication satellites in the next several months. Disaggregated constellations have been part of every study on future satellite programs, the report said.

But the GAO said the Air Force needs more information specifically on how the new approach would work from an operational perspective.

“While technology demonstrations are providing an avenue for gaining knowledge about disaggregation, they have been limited, concentrating more on technical than operational feasibility,” the report said. “Focusing more on operational feasibility would help to empirically quantify the effects of disaggregation and address implementation barriers.”

Air Force leaders have pointed to improved resilience as a major advantage of disaggregation. But when the GAO first started studying the topic, the Defense Department did not have a definition for resilience or any metric to gauge improvement.

“DoD does not have common measures for resilience — a key space system consideration — which may limit the effectiveness of these assessments,” the report said, referring to the Air Force’s analyses of alternative space architectures.

The call for metrics has been a point of frustration for Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the commander of Space Command. At a speech in Huntsville, Alabama, in August, Hyten complained about Pentagon pressure to quantify resilience.

“The whole concept of resiliency is a very frustrating concept to me,” he said. “Folks in the Pentagon keep coming up to me and saying, ‘General Hyten, what is the number for an AEHF resiliency constellation? Is it 95 percent? 90 percent?’ I don’t even know what that means, but they’re trying to put a number on it I guess because we’re space people and we’re geeks and we put numbers on everything. But I don’t care what the number is. I want a resilient warfighting construct.”

The cost of the transition to a disaggregated architecture may be expensive, the report said. While smaller satellites might spur more new entrants, subsequently lowering costs through competition and saving money by launching on smaller, less expensive rockets, the report said, a disaggregated portfolio also could lead to a more complex and more expensive ground system, more frequent launches and therefore higher launch costs, and higher overall costs for nonrecurring engineering, the report said.

In addition, the use of smaller satellites would require a new emphasis on different launch capabilities.

“Disaggregation can enable DoD to reduce launch costs because satellites would no longer require the heaviest, most expensive launch vehicles to get to orbit,” the report said. “However, the vehicles DoD primarily relies on to deliver its satellites to orbit are designed to carry heavier satellites. Without changes to the current architecture, DoD may well find itself having to rely on launch vehicles that are more capable and expensive than needed.”

In addition, the GAO said the Pentagon may be slow to adopt such a drastic departure from current standards.

“DOD’s culture has generally been resistant to changes in space acquisition approaches and that fragmented responsibilities have made it very difficult to coordinate and deliver interdependent systems,” the report said.

In the white paper, the Air Force advocated that 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.”

The GAO report also questioned whether adversaries would be more willing to attack smaller satellites that may be viewed as less important and therefore carry less retribution.