Defense Acquisitions:

Space-Based Radar Effort Needs Additional Knowledge before Starting Development

GAO-04-759: Published: Jul 19, 2004. Publicly Released: Jul 19, 2004.

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Missing among the Department of Defense's (DOD) portfolio of systems is a capability to track stationary and moving enemy vehicles on land or at sea in any type of weather, day or night, from space. To meet this need, DOD and the intelligence community are collaborating on the ambitious Space-Based Radar (SBR) program. By leveraging the newest generation of radar technologies, the SBR concept promises to deliver high-quality data to a wide array of users. DOD intends to start product development in 2006 and to field SBR satellites as quickly as possible so that warfighters, the intelligence community, and national decision makers can gain a better understanding of what adversaries are doing in specific locations around the world. GAO reviewed the SBR program to assess DOD's progress in attaining the knowledge it needs by 2006 in terms of customer needs (or requirements) and resources.

Although SBR is 2 years away from product development, the program already faces major challenges. DOD officials say SBR will likely be the most expensive and technically challenging space system ever built by DOD. The acquisition time frame is much shorter than what has been achieved in the past for other complex satellite systems. Finally, DOD is setting precedence by taking the lead on developing SBR with the intelligence community as a partner. Most DOD space programs that GAO has reviewed in the past several decades were hampered by schedule and cost growth and performance shortfalls. Problems were largely rooted in a failure to match requirements with resources when starting product development. Commitments were made without knowing whether technologies being pursued would work as intended. To avoid these problems, leading commercial firms have adopted a knowledge-based model that enables decision makers to be reasonably certain about their products at critical junctures and helps them make informed investment decisions. Although DOD has taken positive steps to strengthen the involvement of senior leaders within DOD and the intelligence community in setting requirements, SBR's concept of operations has not been approved and signed by requirements boards for either of the two partners. Without documentation and formal approval, it is unclear who will be held accountable for setting requirements or how disagreements among SBR's partners will be resolved when DOD moves SBR into ensuing phases of acquisition. DOD has adopted noteworthy practices to gain knowledge about SBR's resources. These include maximizing the use of systems engineering to close gaps between requirements and resources; estimating all of SBR's costs; exploring alternatives for SBR if the Transformational Communications Architecture (TCA)--the communications infrastructure that is expected to relay SBR data across a network of users--incurs schedule and performance shortfalls; and asking contractors to propose multiple operations concepts for SBR with or without TCA. Despite these accomplishments, DOD is at risk of knowledge gaps. SBR's critical technologies will not be mature when product development starts, as called for by best practices. One of TCA's primary components may not be ready in time to support SBR data. These knowledge gaps make it harder for DOD to reliably estimate how much time and money are needed to complete SBR's development. If TCA is delayed, DOD's alternatives may involve reducing SBR's capabilities or significantly increasing program cost. Without sufficient knowledge, DOD may not be able to determine by the time SBR's product development starts in 2006 whether space-based radar is best suited to tracking moving targets on land or at sea or whether air-based radar would provide enough capabilities at far less cost. More specific analyses would help DOD weigh the merits of various alternatives and assess how much to invest in the SBR acquisition program versus air platforms with similar capabilities.

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

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DOD and its intelligence community partners obtain the additional knowledge they need determine whether and when to begin the SBR acquisition program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of the Air Force to delay approval to commit funding to product development (key decision point B) for SBR until technologies have been demonstrated in a relevant or operational environment so DOD can more reliably estimate the resources needed to complete the program. If the Under Secretary determines that the program should go forward with less mature technologies, the Under Secretary should (1) undertake an assessment of the backup technologies that may lessen capability and add cost to the program and the additional time and money that may be required to meet SBR's performance objectives to address those risks, (2) undertake an assessment of trade-offs that may need to be made with other space programs to assure SBR's successful outcome, and (3) secure formal commitments from DOD to provide funding for total estimated costs as well as costs estimated to address potential technical risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD made the determination not to begin the SBR acquisition program and, therefore, did not commit funding to product development.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DOD and its intelligence community partners obtain the additional knowledge they need determine whether and when to begin the SBR acquisition program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of the Air Force to modify DOD's space acquisition policy to reflect protocols for setting requirements when DOD undertakes programs in partnership with the intelligence community.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD non-concurred with this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DOD and its intelligence community partners obtain the additional knowledge they need determine whether and when to begin the SBR acquisition program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of the Air Force to direct the SBR Executive Steering Group to ensure that outcomes from the requirements management process are formally approved and documented as the program proceeds through product development before an investment is made beyond technology and concept development for the SBR program. This group should identify how key document review comments are to be obtained and addressed and identify all the officials and/or organizations responsible for taking specific approval action. In addition, the group should establish a mechanism and time frame for providing approval/disapproval. Finally, the group should establish a formal mechanism for addressing unresolved issues as they relate to key program documentation, as well as how changes to approved requirements will be assessed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency did not complete action to implement this recommendation, and as of March 2008, the Space Radar (formerly called Space-Based Radar) program of record had essentially been canceled. Specifically, in a March 6, 2008, written statement, DOD states that it and the Intelligence Community (IC) had decided not to pursue the Space Radar program of record. DOD further stated that the Space Radar program of record was not affordable, would be restructured effective immediately, and activities for which would cease as soon as practical.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DOD and its intelligence community partners obtain the additional knowledge they need determine whether and when to begin the SBR acquisition program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of the Air Force to strengthen ongoing study of options for tracking ground-moving targets by ensuring this work includes (1) a full range of air and space options, (2) measures of effectiveness that would help justify choosing SBR over air options, and (3) the possibility of having to rely on TCA alternatives for space options. This work should also consider the results of analyses being conducted by other DOD entities on tracking ground-moving targets.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD made the determination not to fund the development of the SBR program. DOD plans to assess a full range of air and space options to determine its needs in this area.

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