At the Washington Space Business Roundtable lunch in February, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, said he hoped to decide by year’s end the future of one of the U.S. Air Force’s most expensive saellite programs: the Advanced Extremely High Frequency protected communications satellite program.
The Defense Department will not decide what kind of satellites it wants to buy; rather it will decide — before the Obama administration leaves office in January — the broad technical outlines, or architecture, of the DoD’s protected comms mission. The decision will follow more than three years of Air Force analysis of various alternatives.
But a funny thing happened while those studies were underway.
During that time, the Air Force and the broader national security space community it serves have been debating the value of disaggregation: spreading critical space capabilities among batches of smaller, highly specialized satellites instead of building a handful of super-expensive “exquisite” satellites jam-packed with top-shelf features. Proponents argue that presenting an enemy with numerous lower-value targets instead of a much smaller number of high-value targets would make it harder to degrade the U.S. military’s space-enabled battlefield advantages .
DoD leaders are — without fail — quick to point out that disaggregation’s many-eggs, many-baskets approach is just one tool to help the U.S. maintain its space advantage against an enemy willing to deploy anti-satellite weapons.
I recently asked Winston Beauchamp, the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space, if anyone was still making the case for exquisite satellites. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution for resilience,” he said. “We have to look at each of the mission areas in space and design a resilience approach independently for each of them.”
In other words, exquisite satellites aren’t off the table. But industry and government officials, at least privately, say the Pentagon is showing less and less interest in big Battlestar Galactica solutions.
Which brings us back to the AEHF decision.
During the MilSatCom conference held last week at a Sheraton hotel near the Pentagon, Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, specifically outlined the choice the Defense Department needs to make.
The Pentagon can break apart the strategic mission — providing protected communications following a nuclear attack — and the tactical mission (transmitting maps and commands to the battlefield) and place them on separate satellites, or it can continue to meet both sets of requirements with the same satellite.
Loverro called this an “irrevocable” decision with choices that are “180 degrees apart.”
He also made no secret of his opinion. This is important as Loverro is widely seen as one of the most forward-looking and prescient officials in the national security space apparatus.
He favors the Air Force separating AEHF’s capabilities.
Aside from the standard logic that two targets are harder to take out than one, he outlined two other reasons: First, AEHF’s strategic mission is more rigorous, more difficult and more expensive, making the satellite harder to buy and even harder to evolve. As evidence, he pointed to the fact that the Air Force still relies, in part, on the legacy Milstar communications satellites, which was the predecessor to AEHF. Those satellites were designed in the early 1980s.
Second, the U.S. will need international SATCOM partners in order to create capabilities that are “protected, resilient and available when the warfighter needs them around the world,” he said. A differentiated approach encourages commercial and international cooperation, he said.
DoD leaders are increasingly concerned about threats to military satellites and have developed new rubrics to evaluate how well their satellites can withstand an attack. This approach will be used for one of the first times on the next-generation of AEHF satellites. This also appears to point toward the disaggregation approach.
Loverro stressed Pentagon leaders have not made a decision on what will come next for AEHF. But it’s hard not to see his comments at a conference of industry officials (and at least one reporter) as tipping the Defense Department’s hand.