WASHINGTON — Military satellites for decades have been built like a giant toolbox with all the functions crammed into one unit. But this type of monolithic design makes it expensive, complex and less adaptable. The Space Force is now “disaggregating” satellites, breaking down the toolbox into smaller, specialized toolkits.

The idea of disaggregating military satellite capabilities has been talked about for years, but it’s only now becoming a practical reality thanks to lower launch costs, said Cordell DeLaPena, program executive officer for military communications, positioning, navigation, and timing at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command. 

During a meeting with reporters last week at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, DeLaPena pointed to two key programs poised for disaggregation: the Protected Tactical Satcom (PTS) constellation for secure military communications, and the Global Positioning System (GPS).

In the past, when satellite launches were far more expensive, the military had to pack every necessary capability onto a single satellite, he said. With launch costs down, largely due to the emergence of SpaceX, the Space Force is no longer constrained to having a handful of super-capable satellites. And those functions can be distributed across a larger network of smaller, more specialized satellites, he explained.

The PTS program, for example, will have a small number of highly specialized satellites designed to provide secure, jam-resistant communications for battlefield operations. But it will also include a larger proliferated network of more affordable, commercially-derived satellites, said DeLaPena.

The Space Force in its 2025 budget proposal seeks $597 million for PTS satellites. That includes $349 million for military-hardened anti-jam satellites known as PTS-R (regional), and $248 million for PTS-G (global). 

The budget funds two Ka-band and two X-band PTS-G satellites of lower complexity than the PTS-R spacecraft. 

DeLaPena’s office is expected to issue a solicitation for bids in the coming weeks for four PTS-R satellites. Two companies — Boeing and Northrop Grumman — have already developed prototypes under earlier contracts. The PTS-G program is new so it can’t begin until Congress approves the 2025 spending plan. This portion of the PTS architecture will be more distributed but the total number of satellites has yet to be decided, said DeLaPena.

GPS ‘light’ 

The Space Force continues to buy the latest GPS satellites, known as GPS IIIF, made by Lockheed Martin. But it’s also looking to field a more distributed network of smaller, commercially-based GPS satellites that can be refreshed more frequently.

“I’m very interested in the commercial market for GPS satellites,” said DeLaPena. “I think it’s going to be a game changer.”

GPS today “is not disaggregated,” he noted. “With our current GPS satellite, when the calculus was the price of a launch you wanted to get as much capability on a rocket as possible.”

There are now commercial companies that offer satellite buses and payloads that would make it possible to disaggregate GPS into smaller and cheaper platforms, DeLaPena added. 

When the Space Systems Command held an “Industry Day” to gauge vendors’ interest in this program, about 30 companies showed up, he said. “I think the commercial non-traditional ones have a great opportunity to partner with traditionals or other non-traditional suppliers.”

The thinking is that “we can start making GPS satellites a lot lighter and at a much reduced cost so we don’t have to implement a 15-year design life,” he said. “That leads to weight, that leads to mass and that leads to expense.”

GPS satellites also carry non-PNT payloads — including one for search-and-rescue and another to detect nuclear detonations. “All those things, I think, in the future will be disaggregated.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...