National Defense:

Department of Defense's Assessment Addresses Congressional Concerns but Lacks Detail on High Energy Laser Transition Plans

GAO-05-933R: Published: Jul 28, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 2005.

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In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, Congress directed the Department of Defense (DOD) to develop a laser master plan to include identification of potential weapon applications, critical technologies, a development path for those critical technologies, and the funding required to carry out the master plan. In response to this legislation, the High Energy Laser (HEL) Executive Review Panel was formed and issued the HEL Master Plan on March 24, 2000. The Master Plan recommended establishing a management structure for HEL technologies, including a HEL Joint Technology Office (JTO) to execute development and day-to-day management of a joint program to revitalize HEL technologies. The plan also recommended establishment of a HEL Technology Council--composed of senior science and technology executives from the military services and agencies--to provide oversight and approval authority for JTO's programs. As a result of the Master Plan, JTO was formed in June 2000. JTO collaborates with the military services and defense agencies in order to develop and execute an investment strategy for HEL science and technology (S&T) development. In the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001, Congress directed the Secretary of Defense to implement the management and organizational structure specified in the Master Plan. The legislation also required the Secretary of Defense to designate a senior civilian official to head the HEL Technology Council as well as carry out responsibilities for HEL programs by establishing priorities, coordinating the services' and defense agencies' efforts, identifying promising high-priority technologies for funding, and preparing a detailed technology plan to develop and mature those technologies. DOD's Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Science and Technology was designated that official. In the conference report that accompanied the Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005, the conferees expressed concern that the JTO may not be accelerating progress in HEL technology and providing incentives to the services to invest in such technologies. Accordingly, they required the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to Congress on the implementation of the fiscal year 2001 legislation and directed that the report specifically address (1) the effectiveness of JTO in meeting its statutory goals, (2) whether JTO's structure has been effective in transitioning technologies to the warfighter, and (3) the impact of DOD's decision to shift funding responsibility for JTO efforts from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to the Air Force. The conferees required the Secretary of the Defense to provide this report by January 15, 2005, and asked GAO to review the report and provide an assessment to the Congressional Committees by March 15, 2005. We received DOD's report in May 2005 and are providing our assessment of the report's responsiveness to the conferees' three requirements with this correspondence.

The Department of Defense's report on the effectiveness of the HEL JTO is generally responsive to congressional direction but lacks detail on how and when it plans to eventually transition laser technologies to the warfighter. Specifically, the DOD report describes the actions DOD has taken to meet the statutory goals and cites an increase in funding as evidence of its commitment to advance HEL technologies. We agree that, in large part, JTO has been effective in achieving the statutory goals outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001. In addition, on the basis of our previous work, we believe that DOD's implementation of the recommendations of the HEL Master Plan has increased the focus on critical HEL issues. While the DOD report discusses efforts to transition JTO-sponsored technologies to the services and agencies, it does not address the broader issue of how HEL technology will eventually transition to the warfighter. The department's Directed Energy Roadmap, currently in draft, may provide the detailed technology plan to develop and mature HEL technologies, as Congress directed in the 2001 legislation, but it has not yet been implemented as official department policy or guidance. DOD reports that devolving funding responsibility for JTO from OSD to the Air Force has had no negative impact on the program. Judging from the information provided by OSD, the financial impact appears minimal thus far. The office is continuing to use the same processes for its day-to-day operation, with OSD retaining responsibility for management oversight of the office.

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