Homeland Defense:

Continued Actions Needed to Improve Management of Air Sovereignty Alert Operations

GAO-12-311: Published: Jan 31, 2012. Publicly Released: Jan 31, 2012.

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Brian J. Lepore
(202) 512-4523
leporeb@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The Air Force has not fully implemented the recommendations from GAO’s 2009 report. With regard to GAO’s recommendation that the military services should formally assign ASA duties to the units that consistently conduct them and ensure that the readiness of those units is fully assessed, the Air Force did so. However, the National Guard Bureau is considering reversing that action because it believes that the recommendation can be better addressed through the Air Force’s standard deployment process. The Air Force has also not established a timetable to implement ASA as a steady-state mission; has not developed and implemented a plan to recapitalize the aging fighter aircraft that conduct ASA operations before the end of their service lives; and, when ASA units are deployed to support other ongoing operations, the Air Force continues to identify replacement units to perform the ASA mission on an ad hoc basis. All of the above were related to recommendations GAO made to the Air Force in its 2009 report. Separately, GAO found considerable confusion about the capabilities associated with ASA operations in part because, in September 2011, NORAD stopped using the term “air sovereignty alert” and created a new term, “aerospace control alert” (ACA), without clearly defining ACA or the missions that are now included within it.

DOD has taken a series of actions for ASA operations that are consistent with a risk-based management approach. However, several key actions have yet to be taken that would enable the department to better balance risk and costs. Risk-based management includes conducting routine risk assessments that evaluate threats, vulnerabilities, and criticality of assets, as recommended in GAO’s 2009 report, and selecting between alternative courses of action to mitigate risk and make decisions about allocating resources. Although threats to the nation’s air sovereignty continue to emerge and evolve, GAO found that DOD is unable to measure the extent to which ASA helps to achieve the department’s homeland-defense goal of securing the United States from direct attack because DOD has not established performance measures. NORAD has not conducted routine risk assessments of ASA operations. DOD has also yet to conduct a cost-benefit analysis for two of the three alternatives to current ASA operations that GAO evaluated. Adopting a more-rigorous risk-based management approach—including balancing risk and costs—would help policymakers within DOD and elsewhere more effectively allocate finite DOD resources.

Weak internal controls limit the ability of the Air Force and National Guard Bureau to accurately identify ASA expenditures. GAO analyzed the fiscal year 2010 expenditure information that the Air Force and National Guard Bureau submitted to Congress along with DOD’s fiscal year 2012 budget justification and found the reported expenditures of more than $246 million to be inaccurate. For example, GAO found that the Air Force overstated ASA flying-hour expenditures by at least $22 million and included expenditures related to national special-security events, which are not part of ASA operations. GAO found that the Air Force’s ability to identify ASA expenditures is limited by unclear roles and responsibilities for programming and budgeting and a lack of guidance on defining and tracking ASA expenditures. These types of internal controls are important to ensuring basic accountability, maintaining funds control, and preventing fraud and abuse.

Why GAO Did This Study

In the 11 years since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has put forth extensive efforts to protect the nation’s aviation sector and airspace. These efforts include air sovereignty alert (ASA) operations, for which the Air Force provides personnel and fully fueled, fully armed aircraft sitting on constant alert at 18 sites across the United States. In 2009, GAO found shortcomings in the Department of Defense’s (DOD) management of ASA operations, leading to a number of GAO recommendations. For this report, GAO examined the extent to which (1) the Air Force has implemented GAO’s 2009 recommendations, (2) DOD has implemented a risk-based management approach for ASA operations, and (3) the Air Force has accurately identified expenditures for ASA operations. To do so, GAO analyzed relevant strategies, planning documents, guidance, and expenditure data; and interviewed North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), Air Force, National Guard Bureau, and other DOD officials.

What GAO Recommends

Congress may wish to consider requiring the Air Force to fully implement GAO’s 2009 recommendations. In addition, GAO recommends that DOD improve its risk management of ASA operations and improve the Air Force’s ability to accurately identify ASA expenditures. DOD fully or partially agreed with all of GAO’s recommendations.

For more information, contact Brian J. Lepore at (202) 512-4523 or leporeb@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: In order to ensure that the Air Force is taking action that addresses the long-term sustainability of ASA operations, Congress may wish to consider requiring the Secretary of the Air Force to fully implement the remaining actions identified in our 2009 report within a time period that Congress believes most prudent.

    Status: Open

    Comments: The House Armed Services Committee has included an Aerospace Control Alert (Air Sovereignty Alert) related provision in the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization bill that passed the House on May 18, 2012. The provision precluded any changes to the alert status of the 18 alert sites throughout the United States until the enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 or September 30, 2013, whichever of the two dates was later. It also required DOD to submit (1) a consolidated budget exhibit detailing all aspects of the aerospace control alert mission and (2) a report on the cost-benefit analysis and risk-based assessment on the aerospace control alert structure. No further action has been taken on this Matter for Congressional Consideration.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to accurately identify ASA expenditures and address other internal control weaknesses, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force and the Director of the National Guard Bureau to issue guidance that (1) defines ASA programmatic and budgeting roles and responsibilities; (2) defines all expenditures that should be identified as ASA expenditures in financial-management systems; and (3) identifies the proper procedures to track ASA expenditures in their financial-management systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with the recommendation. In its response, DOD stated that it believes that programmatic and budgetary roles are clearly understood and well defined in DOD's planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process. It further stated that the Secretary of the Air Force is responsible for ASA programming and budgeting and that the Office of the Secretary of Defense will continue to work with the Secretary of the Air Force to clarify and standardize tracking and ASA expenditures. No further action has been reported.

    Recommendation: In order that all DOD components may better understand the mission they have been asked to perform, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs, in coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to clearly define ASA operations and its relationship to NORAD's ACA operations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD Concurred with the recommendation. DOD stated that OSD will coordinate with the Joint Staff, NORAD/USNORTHCOM, and the National Guard Bureau (NGB) to ensure standard terminology is used by all organizations involved in the Air Sovereignty mission and is reflected in subsequent plans, execute orders, and DOD publications. Once completed, this standardization will also assist in implementing another GAO Recommendation as it relates to reporting and accounting for the mission.

    Recommendation: In order to implement a more-complete risk-based management approach that balances risk and costs for ASA operations, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in coordination with the U.S. element of NORAD and U.S. Pacific Command, to develop performance measures for ASA operations and then use these measures to evaluate the mission and make adjustments, as warranted, on the basis of the performance-measure results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with the recommendation. DOD stated that it recognized the merit of measures of performance. Though it stated that each Military Department has long-established procedures and measures of performance to certify units as combat ready, DOD did not specify any such efforts related to NORAD and ASA operations.

    Recommendation: In order to implement a more-complete risk-based management approach that balances risk and costs for ASA operations, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs, in coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to issue updated guidance, which includes a prioritized list of metropolitan areas and critical infrastructure that NORAD is supposed to protect.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. DOD stated that the current guidance on prioritized metropolitan areas and critical infrastructure was produced by the National Security Staff and the criteria used to produce it are still valid. DOD further stated that it welcomes the opportunity to review and update the guidance as required. No further action-or planned action-has been taken to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to implement a more-complete risk-based management approach that balances risk and costs for ASA operations, the Secretary of Defense should direct the U.S. element of NORAD to update its ASA computer model to address identified areas for improvement to include incorporating the elements of risk--threat, vulnerability, and consequence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. DOD stated that NORAD determines mission risk by evaluating its computer model results (based on vulnerability, threat capability, and targets of consequence) and comparing the results to intelligence assessments of threat intent. DOD also stated that NORAD would explore improvements to the ASA model in support of NORAD/NORTHCOM decision making as targets and threats evolve and capabilities improve.

    Recommendation: In order to implement a more-complete risk-based management approach that balances risk and costs for ASA operations, the Secretary of Defense should direct the U.S. element of NORAD to document the results of its risk assessments so that NORAD and DOD can identify trends over time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with the recommendation. DOD identified several NORAD studies or assessments-including a 2009 Collateral Damage Study and the 2010 ASA Basing Study-that are subject to trend analysis. We believe that NORAD's efforts to study or analyze different aspects of its missions are positive actions. However, while NORAD issued a one-time report to Congress in March 2011 that identified the results of its 2010 ASA Basing Study, a one-time study is not a trend analysis and the command has not documented the results of its analyses of the ASA model since that time.

    Recommendation: In order to implement a more-complete risk-based management approach that balances risk and costs for ASA operations, the Secretary of Defense should identify the appropriate DOD entities that should conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of NORAD's ASA basing strategy and then have those entities conduct such an analysis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with the recommendation. In comments on the report, DOD stated that multiple cost-benefit analyses have been conducted on NORAD's ASA basing strategy by NORAD, OSD Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, the Joint Staff, the Department of Air Force, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs. However, when we asked NORAD and DOD officials for the cost-benefit analysis of its basing strategy (i.e. potential cost savings that could result from eliminating a given number of sites), the officials told us that such an assessment had not been completed. Further, when we asked which organization would be responsible for completing such studies, the officials provided us conflicting views of whose responsibility it would be. No further action has been reported.

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