Space Acquisitions:

Development and Oversight Challenges in Delivering Improved Space Situational Awareness Capabilities

GAO-11-545: Published: May 27, 2011. Publicly Released: May 27, 2011.

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The United States' growing dependence on space systems makes them vulnerable to a range of threats. DOD has undertaken a variety of initiatives to provide space situational awareness (SSA)--the knowledge and characterization of space objects and the environment on which space operations depend. GAO was asked to (1) review key systems being planned and acquired to provide SSA, and their progress meeting cost, schedule, and performance goals; and (2) determine how much an integrated approach is being used to manage and oversee efforts to develop SSA capabilities. To achieve this, GAO analyzed documentation and interviewed key officials on major SSA development efforts and oversight and management of SSA. This report is an unclassified version of a classified report issued in February 2011.

DOD has significantly increased its investment and planned investment in SSA acquisition efforts in recent years to address growing SSA capability shortfalls. Most efforts designed to meet these shortfalls have struggled with cost, schedule, and performance challenges and are rooted in systemic problems that most space acquisition programs have encountered over the past decade. Consequently, in the past 5 fiscal years, DOD has not delivered significant new SSA capabilities as originally expected. To its credit, the Air Force recently launched a space-based sensor that is expected to appreciably enhance SSA. However, two critical acquisition efforts that are scheduled to begin development within the next 2 years--Space Fence and the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System (JMS)--face development challenges and risks, such as the use of immature technologies and planning to deliver all capabilities in a single, large increment, versus smaller and more manageable increments. It is essential that these acquisitions are placed on a solid footing at the start of development to help ensure their capabilities are delivered to the warfighter as and when promised. GAO has consistently recommended that reliable acquisition business cases be established, such as maturing technologies prior to development start, utilizing evolutionary development, and stabilizing requirements in order to reduce program risks. For efforts that move forward with less mature technologies, assessments of the cost, schedule, and performance implications of utilizing backup technologies, if they exist, could provide the knowledge needed to determine whether the efforts are worth pursuing or the investment trade-offs that may need to be made. DOD plans to begin delivering other new capabilities in the coming 5 years, but it is too early to determine the extent to which these additions will address capability shortfalls. There are significant inherent challenges to executing and overseeing the SSA mission, largely due to the sheer number of governmentwide organizations and assets involved in the mission. Additionally, while the recently issued National Space Policy assigns SSA responsibility to the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary does not necessarily have the corresponding authority to execute this responsibility. However, actions, such as development of a national SSA architecture, are being taken that could help facilitate management and oversight governmentwide. The National Space Policy, which recognizes the importance of SSA, directs other positive steps, such as the determination of roles, missions, and responsibilities to manage national security space capabilities and the development of options for new measures for improving SSA capabilities. Furthermore, the recently-issued National Security Space Strategy could help guide the implementation of the new space policy. GAO has recommended since 2003 that such a strategy be issued. Finally, though the commercial sector and the international community are to play a pivotal role in the SSA mission, it is too early to tell whether DOD's efforts to expand and make permanent its Commercial and Foreign Entities SSA data-sharing pilot program will be effective in integrating efforts to develop SSA capabilities. GAO recommends that DOD assure--in approving the Space Fence and JMS acquisition efforts to initiate product development--that all critical technologies are identified and matured, and that other key risks have been fully assessed. If DOD determines that the programs should move forward with less mature technologies, DOD should assess available backup technologies and additional resources required to meet performance objectives. DOD agreed with the first recommendation and partially agreed with the second. GAO continues to believe DOD should assess required resources earlier than its stated intent.

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: For major space acquisition programs, GAO has consistently made recommendations to help ensure acquisition efforts are placed on a solid footing at program start. For SSA in particular, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics to assure--as part of the approval for the Space Fence and JMS acquisition efforts to initiate product development--that all critical technologies are identified and matured to a level they can be demonstrated in a realistic or operational environment, and that other key program risks have been fully assessed to help ensure cost, schedule, and performance goals will be met (for JMS in particular, implementing this recommendation may require dividing the program into separate increments).

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: DOD held a review to begin product development for the JMS program in April 2013, with all technologies considered fully mature. Additionally, the Air Force restructured the program to include utilizing an incremental development construct. However, an Acquisition Decision Memorandum to document the approval to begin product development has yet to be issued. DOD held a review to begin Space Fence product development in May 2013. According to the Space Fence program office, critical technologies have been matured to a level they can be demonstrated in a relevant environment, which is not in keeping with our recommendation of maturing technologies to a level they can be demonstrated in a realistic or operational environment. An Acquisition Decision Memorandum has yet to be issued to document the approval to begin product development.

    Recommendation: For major space acquisition programs, GAO has consistently made recommendations to help ensure acquisition efforts are placed on a solid footing at program start. For SSA in particular, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, if a determination is made that the effort should move forward into product development with less mature technologies, to then conduct an assessment of available backup technologies that may lessen capability and add cost to the programs and the additional time, money, and effort that may be required to meet performance objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: It is too early to tell whether and how the Air Force will implement the recommendation with regard to the Space Fence effort. DOD held a review to begin Space Fence product development in May 2013. According to the Space Fence program office, critical technologies have been matured to a level they can be demonstrated in a relevant environment, which is not in keeping with our recommendation of maturing technologies to a level they can be demonstrated in a relealistic or operational environment. However, the Space Fence program office has identified backup technologies that may be used, and the consequences of their use, in case the primary technologies cannot be used. An Acquisition Decision Memorandum has yet to be issued to document the approval to begin product development. With regards to JMS, DOD held a review to begin product development in April 2013, with all technologies considered fully mature. However, an Acquisition Decision Memorandum to document the approval to begin product development has yet to be issued.

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