Defense Acquisitions:

Future Aerostat and Airship Investment Decisions Drive Oversight and Coordination Needs

GAO-13-81: Published: Oct 23, 2012. Publicly Released: Oct 23, 2012.

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Cristina T. Chaplain
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What GAO Found

GAO identified 15 key aerostat and airship efforts that were underway or had been initiated since 2007, and the Department of Defense (DOD) had or has primary responsibility for all of these efforts. None of the civil agency efforts met GAO's criteria for a key effort. Most of the aerostat and airship efforts have been fielded or completed, and are intended to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support. The estimated total funding of these efforts was almost $7 billion from fiscal years 2007 through 2012. However, funding estimates beyond fiscal year 2012 decline precipitously for aerostat and airship efforts under development, although there is an expectation that investment in the area will continue.

Three of the four aerostat and airship efforts under development, plus another airship development effort that was terminated in June 2012, have suffered from high acquisition risks because of significant technical challenges, such as overweight components, and difficulties with integration and software development, which, in turn, have driven up costs and delayed schedules.

DOD has provided limited oversight to ensure coordination of its aerostat and airship development and acquisition efforts. Consequently, these efforts have not been effectively integrated into strategic frameworks, such as investment plans and roadmaps. At the time of GAO's review, DOD did not have comprehensive information on all its efforts nor its entire investment in aerostats and airships. Additionally, DOD's coordination efforts have been limited to specific technical activities, as opposed to having a higher level authority to ensure coordination is effective. DOD has recently taken steps to bolster oversight, including the appointment of a senior official responsible for the oversight and coordination of airship-related programs. However, as of August 2012, DOD has not defined the details relating to the authority, scope, and responsibilities of this new position. Whether these steps are sufficient largely depends on the direction DOD intends to take with aerostat and airship programs. If it decides to continue investing in efforts, more steps may be needed to shape these investments.

Why GAO Did This Study

Use of lighter-than-air platforms, such as aerostats, which are tethered to the ground, and airships, which are freeflying, could significantly improve U.S. ISR and communications capabilities, and move cargo more cheaply over long distances and to austere locations. DOD is spending about $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2012 to develop and acquire numerous aerostats and airships.

GAO was asked to determine (1) what key systems governmentwide are being developed and acquired, including funding, purpose, and status; (2) any technical challenges these key efforts may be facing; and (3) how effectively these key efforts are being overseen to ensure coordination, and identify any potential for duplication. To address these questions, GAO reviewed and analyzed documentation and interviewed a wide variety of DOD and civil agency officials.

What GAO Recommands

GAO recommends that DOD take actions based on the extent of its future investments in this area: (1) if investments are curtailed, ensure it has insight into all current and planned efforts in the short term; (2) if investments increase significantly, include the efforts in strategic frameworks to ensure visibility and coordination, guide innovation, and prioritize investments; and (3) ensure the roles and responsibilities of the senior official responsible for the oversight and coordination of airshiprelated programs are defined. DOD concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Cristina Chaplain at (202) 512-4841 or chaplainc@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on follow up with Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (ASD(R&E)in July 2014, DOD officials indicated that DOD is focusing on ensuring that it has an inventory and knowledge of all current and planned efforts in the short term as follows: 1)They created a comprehensive report for the congressional defense committees that identified the status and future plans for the wide variety of aerostats and airships that the Department has evaluated and, in some cases, fielded as a detailed baseline that ensures that the Department has tracked, coordinated and overseen the large number of lighter-than-air (LTA) programs that have been initiated in recent years;(2) The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Engineering created a portal within the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) for archiving technical performance and testing data for its LTA efforts; and (3) In order to ensure visibility across the DOD-sponsored LTA spectrum, the Acting ASD(R&E) conducted the first annual comprehensive review of all DOD airship programs by meeting personally with project managers to discuss technical innovation as well as project challenges.

    Recommendation: To address shortcomings in oversight to improve coordination, based on the extent of the department's future investments in aerostats and airships, if DOD decides to curtail future investment, the Secretary of Defense should focus on ensuring that it has an inventory and knowledge of all current and planned efforts in the short term.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: According to DOD's response in July 2014, DOD does not intend to make further significant investments in lighter-than-air (LTA) technology. It is, however, committed to monitoring commercially sponsored LTA activity in order to identify seams applicable to lighter-than-air solutions. The Department representatives routinely meet with industry personnel that are developing LTA capabilities that may be applicable to long term intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and logistics lift requirements. In regard to including aerostats and airship capabilties in strategic frameworks, a congressional report provided operational concepts developed within DOD for how hybrid airship technology might be employed in future platforms in support of Combatant Commander requirements. Consistent with this strategic conceptualization, the U.S. Transportation Command is providing modest annual funding to study key areas of potential LTA investment and development. This recommendation should remain open until DOD makes a decision on how it plans to increase its LTA investments and development.

    Recommendation: To address shortcomings in oversight to improve coordination, based on the extent of the department's future investments in aerostats and airships, if DOD decides to significantly increase future investment, the Secretary of Defense should include aerostat and airship capabilities in strategic frameworks to ensure visibility into and coordination with relevant efforts, guide innovation, and prioritize investments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (ASD(R&E)), the specific airship-related responsibilities have been delineated--including ensuring cross-fertilization of technology, identifying duplicative efforts and initiating redirection or termination as required, coordinating interagency efforts, and providing an annual status report that outlines airship-related developments and suggestion areas for future improvement efforts. Additionally, ASD(R&E) stated that in April 2013, it conducted its first annual airship programs assessment to ensure cross-fertilization of technology, reduce areas of duplication, and validate future plans for each effort.

    Recommendation: To address shortcomings in oversight to improve coordination, based on the extent of the department's future investments in aerostats and airships, the Secretary of Defense should ensure the roles and responsibilities of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, as the senior official responsible for the oversight and coordination of various airship-related programs, are defined and commensurate with the level of future investment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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