The DOD's satellite control networks are fragmented, says GAO report

Air Force agrees it should use more commercial practices to improve efficiency of satellite control operations

The Department of Defense’s satellite control networks are fragmented and potentially duplicative, according to a report from the General Accountability Office (GAO).

“Over the past decade, DOD has increasingly deployed standalone satellite control operations networks, which are designed to operate a single satellite system, as opposed to shared systems that can operate multiple kinds of satellites,” states the GAO in an April report entitled, Satellite Control: Long Term Planning and Adoption of Commercial Practices Could Improve DOD’s Operations.

“Dedicated networks can offer many benefits to programs, including possible lower risks and customization for a particular program’s needs. However, they can also be more costly and have led to a fragmented and potentially duplicative approach which requires more infrastructure and personnel than shared operations."

For example, the GAO report points out that one Air Force base has 10 satellite programs operated by 8 separate control centers. “According to Air Force officials, DOD continues to acquire standalone networks and has not worked to move its current standalone operations towards a shared satellite control network, which could better leverage DOD investments,” states the GAO report.

The Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN), DOD’s primary shared satellite control network, is undergoing modernization efforts, but these will not increase the network’s capabilities.

The agency notes that the Air Force budgeted about $400 million over the next 5 years to modernize the AFSCN. “However, these efforts primarily focus on sustaining the network at its current level of capability and do not apply a decade of research recommending more significant improvements to the AFSCN that would increase its capabilities,” said the GAO.

The solution, according to the agency, is use of commercial practices to increase the efficiency and decrease costs of DOD satellite control operations. These practices include: interoperability between satellite control operations networks; automation of routine satellite control operations functions; use of commercial off-the-shelf products instead of custom ones; and a “hybrid” network approach that allows a satellite operator to augment its network through another operator’s complementary network.

The GAO says that the Air Forces agrees that there are opportunities for the service to increase efficiencies and lower costs through these practices.

“GAO recommends that the secretary of defense direct future DOD satellite acquisition programs to determine a business case for proceeding with either a dedicated or shared network for that program’s satellite control operations, and develop a department-wide long-term plan for modernizing its AFSCN and any future shared networks and implementing commercial practices to improve DOD satellite control networks.

DOD concurred with the GAO’s recommendations.

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