Defense Acquisitions:

Challenges in Aligning Space System Components

GAO-10-55: Published: Oct 29, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 29, 2009.

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The Department of Defense (DOD) expects to spend more than $50 billion to develop and procure eight major space systems. Typically, the systems have two main components: satellites and ground control systems. Some also have a third component--user terminals--that can allow access from remote locations. If the delivery of these three components is not synchronized, there can be delays in providing full capabilities to the warfighter, and satellites on orbit can remain underutilized for years. Given preliminary indication of uncoordinated deployment, GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which satellite, ground control, and user terminal deployments are aligned; (2) the reasons deployments have not always been well coordinated; (3) actions being taken to enhance coordination; and (4) whether enhancements to ground systems could optimize the government's investment. To accomplish this, GAO analyzed plans for all major DOD satellite acquisitions and interviewed key officials.

Satellites, ground control systems, and user terminals in most of DOD's major space system acquisitions are not optimally aligned, leading to underutilized satellites and limited capability provided to the warfighter. Of the eight major space system acquisitions we studied, three systems anticipated that their satellites will be launched well before their associated ground control systems are fully capable of operating on-orbit capabilities. Furthermore, for five of the eight major space systems GAO reviewed, user terminals were to become operational after their associated satellites reach initial capability--in some cases, years after. When the deployments of satellites, ground control systems, and user terminals are not well synchronized, problems arise that can affect both the warfighter and the space systems themselves. When capabilities are delayed because of lack of alignment between satellite and ground control systems or user terminals, the warfighter may develop short-term solutions, often at diminished capability and added cost. In addition, according to DOD testing officials, when the deployment of space system components is not properly timed, components may be ready for system testing at different times. This means that the space system may not be tested as a whole, connected system. DOD has inherent challenges in aligning its satellite and ground control systems. However, long-standing acquisition problems, a tendency to shift funds from ground control system development to satellite development when satellite development problems arise and the underestimation of software complexity on several major space systems have exacerbated the problem. The primary cause for user terminals not being well synchronized with their associated space systems is that user terminal development programs are typically managed by different military acquisition organizations than those managing the satellites and ground control systems. DOD does have several efforts in place to help achieve better synchronization. The Air Force has also made some attempts to improve acquisition management and increase oversight of contractors by separating the acquisition of satellites and their ground control systems. However, the outcomes of these efforts are still pending. Moreover, there is a lack of guidance needed to help plan for and coordinate the development of satellite and ground systems and a lack of transparency into costs for ground control systems and user terminals. DOD representatives in the satellite acquisition community agree that opportunities exist for DOD to transition to a more common type of architecture for satellite ground control systems in order to achieve additional efficiencies, capabilities, and a higher degree of information sharing among space systems, ultimately resulting in increased capability to the warfighter. All of the officials GAO spoke with agreed that ground control systems can be developed to provide data and information to other systems, and expect the same in return, to potentially enhance the flow and timeliness of information and better exploit satellite capabilities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation and agrees that defining a basic level of expected synchronization during development of new space-based capabilities may better inform acquisition decision makers. DOD notes that they already have an established synchronization measure for military satellite communications (MILSATCOM) capabilities. DOD also acknowledges that a similar measure might be beneficially applied to other space systems; however, delivery of capabilities is dependent on warfighter needs which might not always align with a certain level of synchronization. DOD does not plan to do anything new to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help DOD space systems provide more capability to the warfighter through better synchronization and increased commonality, and to provide increased insight into the costs associated with ground assets, the Secretary of Defense should define a basic level of expected synchronization during the development of each space system acquisition based on delivering a capability to the warfighter.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation and cited several actions it has already taken to improve space systems acquisitions. DOD also cited two additional actions it is planning to implement to address this recommendation. DOD has indicated that additional acquisition effectiveness might be achieved by assessing the Overarching Integrated Product Team's (OIPT) governance structure of space acquisition programs. DOD has since held an initial OIPT assessment to begin capability-wide reviews of military satellite communications systems. This assessment addressed the discrepancies and shortfalls of existing tools and methods of measuring synchronization between the various satellite communications capability segments. While this has provided benefits, further refinement will be needed to realize substantive benefits.

    Recommendation: To help DOD space systems provide more capability to the warfighter through better synchronization and increased commonality, and to provide increased insight into the costs associated with ground assets, the Secretary of Defense should assess the value of designating an office with responsibility for overseeing the relative progress of satellite, ground, and user terminal programs with the aim of ensuring that problems that could affect the ability to synchronize a space system are known and addressed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation and maintains that in all cases, they will conduct adequate operational testing of space systems. They also indicate they have already taken steps to better align and consolidate space system oversight. However, they also indicate they will not delay providing the warfighter with needed space system capabilities in order to optimize operational testing. DOD does not plan to do anything new to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help DOD space systems provide more capability to the warfighter through better synchronization and increased commonality, and to provide increased insight into the costs associated with ground assets, the Secretary of Defense should formulate guidance to better align space system components so that all components are available to facilitate optimal operational testing.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation and agreed that the integration and consolidation of satellite ground control systems has many benefits. On December 26, 2013, Congress signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 (H.R. 3304, Sec. 822) which states that for space systems, DOD is to develop a DOD wide long-term plan for satellite ground control systems. DOD stated it will comply with the law as enacted and expects to its report completed by the end of 2014. GAO will continue to track DOD's progress through updates provided for its April 2013 report on satellite control operations, GAO-13-315.

    Recommendation: To help DOD space systems provide more capability to the warfighter through better synchronization and increased commonality, and to provide increased insight into the costs associated with ground assets, the Secretary of Defense should develop DOD-wide guidance, specific to space systems, to allow for the integration and consolidation, to the extent feasible, of DOD's current and future satellite ground control systems via common ground architecture or by other similar means.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation and agreed that a report to Congress that highlights the cost and cost performance of satellites, ground control systems, and associated user equipment is valuable to informing congressional oversight. However, DOD also indicated that DOD already provides all this information to Congress via annual Selected Acquisition Reports. This recommendation, as clarified in GAO-10-55's section called Agency Comments and Our Evaluation, states that no Selected Acquisition Report currently captures satellite, ground system, and related user terminal costs in a single document. We found this was needed to provide more accessible and transparent data on total costs for space systems. DOD does not plan to do anything new to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help DOD space systems provide more capability to the warfighter through better synchronization and increased commonality, and to provide increased insight into the costs associated with ground assets, the Secretary of Defense should provide annual documentation to Congress (in SARs or in other documents) that specifically delineates the cost, and cost performance, associated with (1) the satellites, (2) the ground control systems, and (3) associated user terminals, and as a result, provides the total cost of all planned components of each space system acquisition.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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