Defense Acquisitions:

Future Aerostat and Airship Investment Decisions Drive Oversight and Coordination Needs

GAO-13-81: Published: Oct 23, 2012. Publicly Released: Oct 23, 2012.

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What GAO Found

GAO identified 15 key aerostat and airship efforts that were underway or had been initiated since 2007, and the Department of Defense (DOD) had or has primary responsibility for all of these efforts. None of the civil agency efforts met GAO's criteria for a key effort. Most of the aerostat and airship efforts have been fielded or completed, and are intended to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support. The estimated total funding of these efforts was almost $7 billion from fiscal years 2007 through 2012. However, funding estimates beyond fiscal year 2012 decline precipitously for aerostat and airship efforts under development, although there is an expectation that investment in the area will continue.

Three of the four aerostat and airship efforts under development, plus another airship development effort that was terminated in June 2012, have suffered from high acquisition risks because of significant technical challenges, such as overweight components, and difficulties with integration and software development, which, in turn, have driven up costs and delayed schedules.

DOD has provided limited oversight to ensure coordination of its aerostat and airship development and acquisition efforts. Consequently, these efforts have not been effectively integrated into strategic frameworks, such as investment plans and roadmaps. At the time of GAO's review, DOD did not have comprehensive information on all its efforts nor its entire investment in aerostats and airships. Additionally, DOD's coordination efforts have been limited to specific technical activities, as opposed to having a higher level authority to ensure coordination is effective. DOD has recently taken steps to bolster oversight, including the appointment of a senior official responsible for the oversight and coordination of airship-related programs. However, as of August 2012, DOD has not defined the details relating to the authority, scope, and responsibilities of this new position. Whether these steps are sufficient largely depends on the direction DOD intends to take with aerostat and airship programs. If it decides to continue investing in efforts, more steps may be needed to shape these investments.

Why GAO Did This Study

Use of lighter-than-air platforms, such as aerostats, which are tethered to the ground, and airships, which are freeflying, could significantly improve U.S. ISR and communications capabilities, and move cargo more cheaply over long distances and to austere locations. DOD is spending about $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2012 to develop and acquire numerous aerostats and airships.

GAO was asked to determine (1) what key systems governmentwide are being developed and acquired, including funding, purpose, and status; (2) any technical challenges these key efforts may be facing; and (3) how effectively these key efforts are being overseen to ensure coordination, and identify any potential for duplication. To address these questions, GAO reviewed and analyzed documentation and interviewed a wide variety of DOD and civil agency officials.

What GAO Recommands

GAO recommends that DOD take actions based on the extent of its future investments in this area: (1) if investments are curtailed, ensure it has insight into all current and planned efforts in the short term; (2) if investments increase significantly, include the efforts in strategic frameworks to ensure visibility and coordination, guide innovation, and prioritize investments; and (3) ensure the roles and responsibilities of the senior official responsible for the oversight and coordination of airshiprelated programs are defined. DOD concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Cristina Chaplain at (202) 512-4841 or chaplainc@gao.gov.

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 address shortcomings in oversight to improve coordination, based on the extent of the department's future investments in aerostats and airships, if DOD decides to curtail future investment, the Secretary of Defense should focus on ensuring that it has an inventory and knowledge of all current and planned efforts in the short term.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (ASD(R&E)), it is developing an inventory and knowledge of investment and technical information from airship efforts across DOD to provide a point from which to develop a future strategic lighter-than-air (LTA -- airships and aerostats) roadmap to assist decisionmakers in maximizing the efficacy of future investments. ASD(R&E) stated a specific site has been established within the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) to serve as a repository for airship technical information, and efforts to collate, analyze, and archive current project information will be completed by the summer of 2013. After the initial data are archived, ASD(R&E) stated it will actively continue to populate the DTIC site as additional analyses of LTA technologies become available. Additionally, ASD(R&E) stated it provided to Congress two reports, one that inventories and offers a synopsis of all LTS projects and a second that offers a heavy-lift airship concept of operations, in November 2012. Finally, ASD(R&E) stated a modest annual budget has been set aside for the study of critical aspects of airship design and that for FY13, funding is targeted to study scalability factors in designing a heavy lift hybrid airship. ASD(R&E) stated DOD will continue to monitor commercial airship development efforts during FY14 to potentially influence airship specific study efforts in FY15. Once the initial LTA database is created, this recommendation could be considered implemented. In providing comments on this report, the agency concurred with this recommendation but has not completed actions necessary to implement it.

    Recommendation: To address shortcomings in oversight to improve coordination, based on the extent of the department's future investments in aerostats and airships, if DOD decides to significantly increase future investment, the Secretary of Defense should include aerostat and airship capabilities in strategic frameworks to ensure visibility into and coordination with relevant efforts, guide innovation, and prioritize investments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (ASD(R&E)), despite no intent for robust short term investment, DOD is committed to staying abreast of developments in the airship community, identifying potential airship solutions to capability gaps, monitoring commercial activity and engaging in collaborative efforts when appropriate. In addition to active involvement in the airship community of interest, ASD(R&E) stated DOD stays abreast of formal reports, cross-fertilization events and technical reviews like those produced through ASD(R&E)'s collaboration with NASA to produce a hybrid airship demonstrator. ASD(R&E) stated that in April 2013, the Acting ASD(R&E) conducted the first annual comprehensive review of all DOD airship programs by meeting personally with project managers to discuss technical innovation as well as project challenges. Additionally, the office stated that DOD remains committed to monitoring commercial airship activity in order to identify strategic and operational seams that might be addressed by lighter-than-air solutions and that the Office of the Secretary of Defense representatives meet annually with commercial airship developers to discuss trends in airship technologies, future commercial applications and opportunities for possible future collaboration. This recommendation should remain open until DOD's investment plans for lighter-than-air activities are more fully determined. [R. Horiuchi, 7/10/13, 303-572-7443]

    Recommendation: To address shortcomings in oversight to improve coordination, based on the extent of the department's future investments in aerostats and airships, the Secretary of Defense should ensure the roles and responsibilities of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, as the senior official responsible for the oversight and coordination of various airship-related programs, are defined and commensurate with the level of future investment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (ASD(R&E)), the specific airship-related responsibilities have been delineated--including ensuring cross-fertilization of technology, identifying duplicative efforts and initiating redirection or termination as required, coordinating interagency efforts, and providing an annual status report that outlines airship-related developments and suggestion areas for future improvement efforts. Additionally, ASD(R&E) stated that in April 2013, it conducted its first annual airship programs assessment to ensure cross-fertilization of technology, reduce areas of duplication, and validate future plans for each effort.

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