DOD space program dogged by delays, cost overruns

GAO report finds numerous problems with department satellite plans

Poised at the beginning of a new era in satellite acquisition, the Defense Department continues to see its space programs dogged by significant and persistent cost overruns and sometimes declining capabilities, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

And until the additional issues of a lack of clear-cut leadership and shortfalls in critical space technical and program expertise are resolved, “commitment to reforms may not be sustainable,” GAO warned.

The report, “DOD Poised to Enhance Space Capabilities, but Persistent Challenges Remain in Developing Space Systems,” is based on testimony March 10 by Cristina Chaplain, GAO’s Acquisition and Sourcing Management director, before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, chaired by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

Most of DOD’s large space acquisitions “have experienced problems during the past two decades that have driven up costs by billions of dollars, stretched schedules by years and increased technical risks,” the report said.

DOD has made progress on some of its high-risk space programs. Last year saw the launch of the third Wideband Global SatCom (WGS) satellite, which gave military personnel additional communications capabilities.

Although problems remain, Nelson told the subcommittee hearing that with WGS, “after years of discussing broken space acquisition programs that were years behind schedule and significantly over budget, it appears as if these programs have finally turned a corner.”

DOD also is expected during the next few years to launch new generations of satellites from four major space acquisition programs, “that should significantly advance some capabilities, particularly protected communications and space surveillance,” the GAO report said.

Runaway costs in the programs have grabbed headlines: the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) program, initially budgeted at about $4.4 billion, stands at more than $13.6 billion for four geosynchronous Earth-orbiting satellites.

DOD has made efforts to bring costs under control by scrapping some major space systems acquisitions and reducing the capabilities and number of planned satellite purchases.

For example, the department cut two satellites and four instruments from the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).

Along with the cost increases, many space acquisitions are experiencing significant schedule delays, Chaplain said. Currently SBIRS is eight years behind schedule.

Other programs have also seen due dates extended. The first satellite launch for NPOESS, now set for March 2014, is five years later than the initial planned launch date of April 2009.

Such schedule slippage results “in potential capability gaps in areas such as missile warning, military communications and weather monitoring,” she told the subcommittee.

Air Force officials “have requested information from the space community on how best to address a potential gap in missile warning capabilities,” she said.

Delays in fielding satellite ground control systems or user terminals have caused capability gaps of four or more years. “We found that for six of DOD’s eight major space system acquisitions, DOD has not been able to align delivery of satellites with ground control systems, user terminals or both,” Chaplain said.

Causes of the cost escalations and related problems vary, “but several consistently stand out,” the GAO report said.

  • DOD starts more weapon systems than it can afford, creating a competition for funding that encourages low cost estimates, overly optimistic schedules, a reluctance to convey bad news “and, for space programs, forsaking the opportunity to identify and assess potentially more executable alternatives.”
  • DOD launches space programs before ensuring their goals can be met within given time and resource constraints. “This tendency is caused largely by the funding process, since acquisition programs attract more dollars than efforts concentrating solely on proving technologies.”
  • DOD tries to make programs all-encompassing, satisfying “all requirements in a single step, regardless of the design challenge or the maturity of the technologies necessary to achieve the full capability.”

“I think a lot of credit goes to DOD for the wide range of actions they’ve been taking to improve their acquisitions,” Chaplain told the subcommittee.

Those DOD efforts “include such things as strengthening cost estimating, strengthening testing oversight, contractor oversight, strengthening the requirements process, strengthening their acquisition policy,” she said.

“For space in particular,” the GAO report said, “DOD is working to ensure critical technologies are matured before large-scale acquisition programs begin; requirements are defined early in the process and are stable throughout; and that system design remains stable, according to the director of Space and Intelligence under DOD’s Office of the Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.”

The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act, signed into law in May 2009, is designed to limit cost overruns before they spiral out of control and strengthen oversight and accountability by appointing officials.

Managing space activities is divided into operational and acquisition segments, said Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of the Air Force Space Command. The operations side has “unequivocally” greatly improved over the past decade, he told the subcommittee. But, he added, “on the acquisitions side, I think I would give us a mixed review.”

“But we’re not really out of the woods yet,” Chaplain said. Two major hurdles remain. The national security space enterprise encompasses so many government and nongovernmental organizations “that there is no single authority responsible below the president,” Chaplain explained.

The so-called Allard Commission, chartered by Congress, reported in 2008 that responsibilities for military space and intelligence programs were so dispersed across the staffs of DOD organizations and the intelligence community that it appeared “no one is in charge” of the national security space.

Because of such diffuse leadership, Chaplain said, “DOD is now facing a situation where satellites with advances in capability will be residing for years in space without users being able to take full advantage of them because investments and planning for ground, user, and space components were not well-coordinated.”

The second hurdle is the dearth of experienced space acquisition and program management personnel as well as engineers skilled in such specialized areas as avionics and launch vehicle design, the GAO official told the subcommittee. As many as half the government jobs in some key areas are not projected to be filled, she said.

There are indications that DOD’s space programs are on the right track, she said. But until the challenges of diffuse leadership, cross-agency cooperation and communication, and the right technical and programmatic expertise have been met, DOD’s space program will continue to be earthbound.

About the Author

Sam Lais is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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