More discussion is needed about the potential limitations of satellite disaggregation for the Defense Department, including changes that would be made to interconnecting systems and the financial investment those changes would require, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

GAO said Thursday in a report (GAO-15-7) the potential benefits of disaggregation, such as lower costs associated with shorter development cycles and simpler designs, have been discussed in various Air Force publications. But less has been said about changes disaggregation would require to systems like ground stations, user equipment and communications networks, it added.

Artist's illustration Boeing's Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellites. Such satellites are considered to be "dual-use," with both civilian and military capability. Photo: Boeing.
Artist’s illustration Boeing’s Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellites. Photo: Boeing.

GAO said, as an example, acquiring smaller and less complex satellites may require less time and effort to develop and produce. On the other hand, a large number of satellites may be needed to provide the same level of capability and the transition from existing system designs could increase costs.

Disaggregation is one of many approaches DoD is considering for its future space system designs. GAO said DoD is also considering the possibility of making satellites more maneuverable and building in defense capabilities as a means to protect themselves and increase survivability. Another approach is to evolve, or enhance, the capabilities of the large multifunctional satellites DoD is currently building. The Pentagon is currently conducting studies that will consider future system architectures.

Many potential benefits of disaggregation, GAO said, can also be accompanied by drawbacks. For instance, with capabilities distributed across multiple platforms, rather than centralized onto just a few satellites, it may be more difficult for an adversary to target all assets to attack full system capabilities. However, with an increased number of satellites, the space environment becomes more congested, increasing risk of radio frequency (RF) interferences and the potential for on-orbit contact with, and damage from, debris or other assets.

“Given the breadth of impacts disaggregation can have, it may not be possible to have complete knowledge of its effects,” GAO said. “But experts agree that decision-making would benefit from assessments that look well beyond a single satellite program.”

GAO said even if DoD concludes disaggregation would have net positive effects, there are significant longstanding barriers to implementation. For instance, GAO said it continues to find that there are time gaps, sometimes years-long, in aligning the delivery of satellites with associated user equipment and ground systems, which means that satellites may be in orbit for a long time with limited use. Without resolving the leadership, management and oversight issues that have led to these delays, GAO said time gaps may as well be exacerbated by disaggregation.

GAO said it is simply not yet known whether, and to what degree, disaggregation can specifically help DoD reduce acquisition costs and increase the resilience of its satellite systems and that more discussion is needed.

An industry source on Monday was disappointed with GAO’s “let’s study the program more” recommendation. The source said GAO did not take fully into consideration the changing space environment (especially the threat), new technology and the strong federal government expertise in managing large constellations. GAO, the source said, also did not take fully into consideration the unaffordability, from a cost and schedule perspective, of the status quo.

“Some mission areas could benefit from disaggregation now, and we would hope that the government continues down the path of separating exquisite capabilities and requirements, from those that can be done on a smaller, disaggregated and more commercial scale,” the source said in an email.