GAO's Chaplain — Disaggregation May Have Merit, But Challenges, Too

GAO's Chaplain — Disaggregation May Have Merit, But Challenges, Too

Christina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked for GAO’s assessment of disaggregation at a Senate hearing last week.  GAO has several studies underway, she replied, and it appears the concept has merit in theory, but there are reasons to be cautious, too.

Chaplain is director, acquisition and sourcing management at GAO, and leads the group that conducts most of GAO’s studies about military space issues.  She testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s (SASC’s) Subcommittee on Strategic Forces annually providing a synopsis of GAO’s recent assessments of how the Department of Defense (DOD) is managing its space programs.  Last year and this year GAO gave DOD high marks for improving its management and acquisition of space systems overall while highlighting remaining areas of concern.   Like last year, Chaplain stressed the need for DOD to ensure that the ground segments for its satellite systems are ready by the time the satellites are launched, for example.

One topic that was discussed at length at Wednesday’s (April 24) hearing on military space programs was DOD’s efforts to field more resilient space-based capabilities and the role that disaggregation might play.   Disaggregation is a concept where instead of relying on a few, large satellites, military space needs might better be met by a system of many smaller satellites, including hosted payloads on commercial satellites, which could reduce vulnerability and lower costs. 

In one sense, the idea of disaggregation builds on DOD’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) effort that focused on building small satellites that could be launched relatively quickly to meet requirements of operational commanders.   The ORS-1 satellite is widely considered a success, but DOD proposed terminating the ORS program office last year.  Instead, it said it would integrate ORS lessons learned into the broader Air Force satellite acquisition process.   Congress emphatically said no, but DOD is proposing to abolish the ORS program office again this year even while it is touting the potential benefits of disaggregation. DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy Doug Loverro assured SASC that the department got the message, but choices must be made about where to cut the budget and that is why the proposal is being made again.

Disaggregation and resiliency were major topics at the SASC hearing as well as at a companion hearing before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) the next day.  Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. William Shelton told SASC that no decision has been made about whether to adopt the disaggregation approach yet, but he will know more this summer.  He added that from what he has seen so far, “there is no reason not to be confident ” of its value.

Chaplain was asked by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NB) for GAO’s views on disaggregation.  She replied that GAO has studies underway about it that will be completed later this year, but that theoretically it has value.   However, there are a number of challenges that DOD will have to bear in mind, including the following:

  • disaggregation might lower costs in the long term, but costs might rise in the short term while there is an overlap with the current acquisition approach and start-up costs are needed for a new infrastructure to support the new architecture;
  • data fusion may be more challenging because more satellites will have to work together since the sensors no longer will be on the same platform;
  • control systems will need to be modernized with common interfaces and standards; and
  • leadership fragmentation could be an issue, as evidenced already by the disconnect between getting ground systems and satellites ready at the same time.

Other witnesses at the SASC hearing were Navy Deputy Assistant Secretary John Zangardi and Army Space and Missile Defense Commander Lt. Gen. Richard Formica.  A broad range of military space issues were discussed including the impacts of sequestration, the ongoing debate about acquisition of space launch services (EELVs and new entrants), counter-space capabilities, the status of discussions about an international code of conduct for space activities, and the Navy’s MUOS communications satellite program.

The HASC hearing the next day covered several of the same topics and also revealed that DOD is leasing communications capacity on a Chinese satellite, which was a bit of a surprise considering the opposition to U.S.-China space cooperation in the civil space realm.

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