Testimony: DOD space programs beset by troubles

The Defense Department has lost its way in its space programs with an outdated focus on large, one-size-fits all systems at the expense of smaller, more economical and flexible systems with a greater likelihood of success, a House panel was told on Thursday.

The result has been delays of critical capabilities in the military’s space-based communications and intelligence-gathering infrastructure, said Josh Hartman, senior adviser to the DOD undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“Past performance in the development of space and intelligence systems has not given us great confidence in meeting our future challenges in a timely or affordable manner,” Hartman told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. “Today, in multiple mission areas we rely on systems that have lived long past their design lives. For tomorrow, we hope that systems designed with a Cold War mentality will be successfully delivered and able to meet the threats of the future environment.”

The Government Accountability Office, after studying the challenges faced by DOD and industry in developing new space systems, concluded that the United States risks not only falling behind in the race for new capabilities, but failing to maintain current capabilities.

The majority of the large space-system acquisitions in the last 20 years have experienced problems resulting in the cancellation of tens of billions of dollars worth of programs, Cristina Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, told the subcommittee. Estimated costs for current major space programs have increased by nearly $11 billion through fiscal 2013, she said.

Hartman placed the blame for this situation clearly within the department’s management. “I believe the key acquisition problems facing the community can be summed up in two words: accountability and discipline. For almost two decades, we have lacked accountability and discipline in our acquisition programs.”

GAO recommended a range of management practices to improve space acquisitions, and DOD is acting on some of them, Hartman said.

“We recognize that in the past we have not been buying the right things or buying them in the right manner,” he said. “However, we have several initiatives underway to address this.”

Those initiatives include keeping program mangers in place longer and making them accountable to acquisition officials; creating configuration steering boards with the power to veto noncritical changes in programs; creating teams of technical experts and stakeholders to address thorny issues of technology, architecture and planning early in the process; using prototyping and competition to ensure that technology is mature when it is fielded; and assembling a body of best practices to guide acquisitions.

Program problems cited by GAO included:

The launch date for the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite has slipped by two years and the costs of subsequent AEHF satellites is spiraling upward because manufacturers no longer support some components.
  • Operational capability for the Mobile User Objective System communications satellite has been delayed nearly a year and the cost has nearly doubled.
  • The Global Positioning System IIF satellite is expected to be delayed almost three years and the cost has more than doubled.
  • The cost of five Space-Based Infrared System satellites has more than doubled while the first launch has been delayed by seven years so far.
  • Replenishing satellites in the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System has been delayed and the number of satellites reduced because of growing costs.
“This year it is also becoming more apparent that space acquisition problems are leading to potential gaps in the delivery of critical capabilities,” Chaplain told the subcommittee. Delays in the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite program threatens to create a gap in secure communications. Because of delays in the Multi User Objective System, two satellites already in orbit have failed without replacements, threatening some [ultra high frequency] communications.

GAO said it accepts Hartman’s contention that a focus on monolithic megasystems has contributed to acquisition problems, but also cited other problems. DOD typically takes on more acquisition projects than it can support, resulting in low-balling of estimates and programs based on advocacy rather than realism, Chaplain said. And because of budget cycles, space acquisition systems often begin before mature technology is available.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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