Missile Defense:

Alternate Approaches to Space Tracking and Surveillance System Need to Be Considered

GAO-03-597: Published: May 23, 2003. Publicly Released: May 23, 2003.

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The Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is developing a ballistic missile defense system designed to counter a wide spectrum of ballistic missile threats. A future element of this system is the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS). STSS will eventually be composed of a constellation of satellites that will work together to detect and track missiles throughout all phases of their flight. GAO was asked to analyze MDA's approach to demonstrate capabilities for STSS.

MDA purposely adopted a strategy that would evolve STSS over time rather than trying to make a big leap in its capability, deferring some requirements, and calling for competition in the development of the sensors aboard the satellite. Recent decisions, however, will limit MDA's ability to achieve its original goals as well as the knowledge that could be gained from its satellite demonstrations. Specifically, MDA recently reduced its efforts to sustain competition by eliminating funds set aside to procure an alternative satellite sensor from a competing contractor. It now plans to fund only efforts to design an alternative sensor. If it chooses to pursue STSS as part of the missile defense system, STSS may end up being more expensive in the future because MDA could be locked into a single contractor for the design and production of the large constellation of satellites. MDA decided to delay development and launch of new demonstrators in order to focus on completing development of two legacy satellites. MDA already knows that it would like to pursue different designs and different technologies for its target system given that the legacy satellites do not support a producible design. As a result, delaying work on the next generation of satellites will delay work that could offer a better basis from which MDA could build an operational capability. MDA's decision to launch in 2007 lacks important knowledge. MDA has established a launch date before it has completed its assessment of the working condition of the equipment it needs to assemble in order to finish building the two satellites it would like to launch. As a result, it does not know the extent of work that must be done or how much it will cost because the number components found to be in working or non-working order have not yet been identified. MDA has considered pursuing alternate approaches, but all are constrained by the need to participate in 2006-2007 missile defense tests. These approaches include (1) launching the legacy satellites in 2008 instead of 2007 and (2) stopping work on the legacy satellites and focusing instead on developing new demonstrators. Both of these approaches would enable MDA to inject more competition into the STSS program, reduce scheduling risks, and demonstrate more capabilities. However, they also have drawbacks; primarily, they would delay MDA's ability to make informed trade-offs on missile defense sensors.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While DOD concurred with this recommendation, it has not taken any action on implementing it. DOD stated that competition in the area of sensor payloads is central to the Department's risk mitigation strategies on STSS.

    Recommendation: To better ensure MDA's approach to validate space-based sensors and technologies for missile acquisition, tracking, and discrimination, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, MDA to use this assessment to find ways to ensure that competition at the sensor level is part of all efforts to develop missile tracking capabilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD used an initial assessment of the Flight Demonstration System (FDS) to conduct an analysis of alternative approaches to development of space based sensor to support Ballistic Missile Defense. DOD did not conduct a broader assessment to determine alternative approaches and did not consider the possibility of delaying any launches to do this assessment. DOD believes that Block 2006 will yield critical data which will expand understanding of the effectiveness of a space-based infrared system.

    Recommendation: To better ensure MDA's approach to validate space-based sensors and technologies for missile acquisition, tracking, and discrimination, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, MDA to use this assessment to conduct a broader analysis of alternative approaches, including the possibility of delaying launches to 2008 as well as dropping the development of the existing satellite components and focusing instead on developing demonstration satellites based on later generation technology.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The assessment of the working condition of the legacy satellites in DOD's Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) has been a major focus of DOD's ongoing activity for STSS. This included assessing the condition of and reactivating the hardware, all of which is now complete. The program is currently performing system level assembly, integration and testing on the satellites as well as software development. According to the program manager, the design work on the next generation satellites has been deferred until they have had one year of on-orbit experience with the legacy satellites. Currently, the STSS Block 06 effort remains on schedule and the program office expects that the satellites will be launched a few months earlier than the contract date of July 2007. Once launched, the two satellites will be assessed as to how well they work within the context of the missile defense system. MDA is also studying improvements to the STSS program and plans to build next-generation satellites.

    Recommendation: To better ensure MDA's approach to validate space-based sensors and technologies for missile acquisition, tracking, and discrimination, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, MDA to focus spending on its STSS contract to assessing the working condition of the legacy satellites and what additional work is necessary to develop, test, and launch the existing satellites so that MDA has more knowledge on which to build cost and schedule estimates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While DOD concurred with this recommendation, it has not followed a different strategy as the assessment of the Block 2006 hardware does not indicate the need to adjust the contract.

    Recommendation: To better ensure MDA's approach to validate space-based sensors and technologies for missile acquisition, tracking, and discrimination, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Director, MDA to, if this assessment concludes that MDA should follow a different path for STSS, renegotiate the STSS contract to account for this change,

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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