Satellite Disaggregation: The Space Community’s Newest Way Of Wasting Money

Remember military transformation, the briefly fashionable movement to rethink warfare by leveraging the dot.com revolution into the battlespace? It wasn’t a totally crazy idea, but it began to go away the first time U.S. forces encountered an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Turns out nobody had clued in the insurgents to the way they were supposed to be waging war in the information age, so they did something for which we had no easy answers. America almost lost the war.

Trendy mistakes seem to be a common problem when organizations have too much money. Look at the ridiculous Airbus A380, the first jetliner big enough to seat the entire U.S. Congress in comfort. How many airlines really need a plane that big? Of course, the correspondingly big price-tags for such initiatives always are accompanied by promises that they will save lots of money “across the lifetime of the program.” That’s what got the space community fixated on “better-faster-cheaper” approaches to developing and launching satellites in the 1990s — a detour from reality that ultimately cost the government many billions of dollars and lost years of functionality to fix.

Now that almost all of the satellite programs in the national-security space portfolio are back on track — after a decade of restructurings and delays — the space community has discovered another bright and shining new idea with which to get itself into trouble. It’s called “space disaggregation,” and what it amounts to is busting up multi-mission payloads currently carried on one type of spacecraft so they can be farmed out to a variety of cheaper, simpler satellites. If satellites were simpler and more numerous, the thinking goes, they’d be less expensive to buy and less likely to cause catastrophic security problems when attacked.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how this idea will unfold. First, the political system will decide it’s a great excuse for not spending money on pricey satellites we were already planning to buy, because something better is coming. Then a pile of money will be spent to develop new classes of satellites, during which time engineers will discover operational and technical complexities that visionaries hadn’t anticipated. Just about that time, proponents of disaggregation will retire from government and Congress will start noticing the delays that have pushed the new space initiative into a breach of Nunn-McCurdy rules on cost over-runs. The “life-cycle” of the new idea will then conclude amidst widespread recriminations as the military scrambles to fill gaps created when previously-planned satellites were canceled.

This “four stages of grief” approach to military innovation has become so commonplace in the Pentagon that it’s like a bureaucratic ritual. Since we already know how it’s going to turn out, can we just throw a few million dollars at the RAND Corporation to think about the idea for five years before implementing it? If space disaggregation goes away in the meantime, the RAND study will be an excellent investment.