The military is a place where plans are ever-present. Thinking forward is a part of the tactic. From sword-filled battlefields, to the path of remotely piloted aircraft, the military goes hand-in-hand with strategy.
A strategy that goes all the way out into the stars.
The Air Force Space Command recently released a white paper titled Resiliency and Disaggregated Space Architectures. It breaks down the needs and wants of the future of our space command program, within the limits that today’s environment allows.
You see, the security environment of today, as the paper says, is much different than in the past. Satellites used to be the biggest and flashiest things we could roll onto the launch pad.
Performance was prioritized over protection as the threat of “mutually assured destruction” reduced any risk of an attack.
Then technology evolved.
System designs became increasingly complex, integrated and expensive. This is a problem, since we have the ambitions of a foregone era, but not the budget. So what can you do when the need for advancement in space technologies for security and communication purposes still exists? The Air Force Space Command just might have the answer: disaggregation.
A concept that might be able to bridge the gap between innovation and affordability.
So what is disaggregation?
According to the white paper, “Disaggregation improves mission survivability by increasing the number and diversity of potential targets, thereby complicating an adversary’s decision calculus and increasing the uncertainty of successful attack.”
In slightly less complicated terms, they want to break up our space mission technology and efforts onto multiple platforms or systems.
Why do we want to do that?
Disaggregation is of value whether the threat is a hostile adversary, or an environmental threat, such as orbital debris. Instead of sending one behemoth into the wild blue wonder, if you will, they want to create a lot of simpler, more effective systems and technologies. These smaller platforms are designed to do the same thing as the big mission, but in a more network-integrated way.
The space systems that met yesterday’s challenges must address today’s problems, and today’s architectures must address the future security environment.
How does this help?
While kinetic threats could obviously be devastating, non-kinetic threats, such as radio-frequency jammers and cyber attacks, can be equally destructive and are far more prevalent. Cyberspace threats, in particular, have exceptionally low barriers to entry and are growing rapidly. Space systems that rely on complex software and radio-frequency links could be susceptible to these attacks, despite robust cryptographic protection.
The threat environment has changed extraordinarily, even in the last decade. According to the AFSC, “we must adapt critical U.S. capabilities if our operational advantage is to endure”.
Given the challenges of a rapidly changing security and fiscal environment, seeking resilience in space systems is of a benefit to the security of our nation.
“Disaggregating space architectures is one strategy to improve resiliency, offering a means to trade cost, schedule, performance, and risk to increase flexibility and capability survivability.”
Disaggregation is “the dispersion of space-based missions, functions or sensors across multiple systems spanning one or more orbital plane, platform, host or domain.”
Disaggregation is a strategy to affect multiple elements of our overall space architecture. Its purpose is to provide options within architecture to drive down cost, increase resiliency and distribute capability.
Disaggregation has other benefits. It allows systems to be less complex, easier to maintain and affords the Air Force the ability to lower per-unit production costs and improve industrial base stability.
Increased Technology Refresh Opportunities
Current satellite systems have developmental timelines of up to 14 years. Once on orbit these systems routinely exceed 10 years of life.
Through less complex satellites employing more flexible designs, disaggregation facilitates the incorporation of new technology before the end of a space constellation’s lifetime. In this regard, it represents an evolution of system acquisition that enables adaptable platforms, software, and capabilities to more effectively match emerging needs.
Increased Launch and Space Industrial Base Stability
Disaggregation could also foster healthy competition and assist with distributing workload over multiple contractors. Payloads flown on separate spacecraft groups could be provided by different contractor teams, potentially dividing large contracts, creating industrial competition and allowing technology insertion on independent timelines.
“Depending on the approach to disaggregation employed, it could lead to more frequent and predictable launch profiles.”
If, as many experts assert, an attack in space is inevitable, keeping things running from many locations has benefits. Disaggregation will enable new tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to take advantage of the unique attributes of a dispersed architecture. Basically, there’s something to be said about not putting all your technology eggs into one satellite/facility basket.
What’s the bottom line?
Today, our current space architectures are vulnerable to attack. Our adversary’s counterspace capabilities and actions continue to grow in sophistication, numbers, and employment, with the intent to hold our space systems at risk.
If the premise is accepted that national security space assets will someday be attacked, then we have a military and moral obligation, as the white paper states, to examine protective measures that minimize this risk and protect our nation’s warfighters, citizens, and economy.
While disaggregation is only part of the equation for space system resiliency, it offers the possibility to increase technology refresh opportunities, improve requirements discipline, increase launch and space industrial base stability, increase affordability and improve deterrence.
What’s my take?
Disaggregation is the Air Force Space Commands concept for keeping us in orbit, while still remaining tactically sound. I would say that as a strategy, disaggregation requires careful analysis and mission-specific assessment. But if this means we’re moving forward to smaller and better things, then I think it’s worth looking into, don’t you?
Want to know more? Read the full white paper here: Resiliency and Disaggregated Space Architectures
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.
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