DOD Space Systems:

Additional Knowledge Would Better Support Decisions about Disaggregating Large Satellites

GAO-15-7: Published: Oct 30, 2014. Publicly Released: Oct 30, 2014.

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Cristina Chaplain
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chaplainc@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

It is not yet known whether and to what degree disaggregation can help the Department of Defense (DOD) reduce acquisition costs and increase the resilience of its satellite systems. Experts GAO spoke with identified an array of benefits and limitations. For example, acquiring smaller, less complex satellites may require less time and effort to develop and produce. On the other hand, a larger number of satellites may be needed to provide the same level of capability, and the transition from existing system designs could increase costs. Experts agree that decisionmaking would benefit from assessments that look beyond a single satellite program and consider the broad range of potential effects of disaggregation. Benefits and limitations aside, there are longstanding barriers to implementation. For instance, disaggregation could exacerbate delays in the delivery of user equipment and ground systems. As GAO has reported, such delays, tied to management and oversight shortcomings, have resulted in expensive satellites being in orbit for years with limited use.

Notional Example of a Disaggregated Satellite System

Notional Example of a Disaggregated Satellite System

Note: For purposes of this graphic, strategic capabilities may refer to those needed for major operations, such as those involving nuclear weapons. Tactical capabilities may refer to those needed for more localized operations.

DOD is examining whether disaggregation should be used for some of its space systems, but significant uncertainty—including how to quantify a broad range of potential effects—remains. For example, DOD has initiated and completed studies and demonstrations, including Analyses of Alternatives that examine disaggregated concepts for certain systems. These studies can provide initial insights, such as rough order of magnitude costs of selected disaggregated scenarios, but they are not intended to comprehensively assess the effects of disaggregation. Moreover, DOD does not have common measures for resilience—a key space system consideration—which may limit the effectiveness of these assessments. Additionally, while technology demonstrations are providing an avenue for gaining knowledge about disaggregation, they have been limited, concentrating more on technical than operational feasibility. Focusing more on operational feasibility would help to empirically quantify the effects of disaggregation and address implementation barriers. Until more knowledge is gained, disaggregation will not only remain inconclusive, but poorly informed decisions could be made in the interim.

Why GAO Did This Study

Fiscal constraints and growing threats to space systems have led DOD to consider alternatives for acquiring space-based capabilities, including disaggregating large satellites into multiple, smaller satellites or payloads (see graphic). A Senate Armed Services Committee report mandated GAO to assess the potential benefits and drawbacks of disaggregation and examine if it offers decreased costs and increased survivability for selected DOD satellite systems.

This report (1) describes potential benefits and limitations of disaggregation, and (2) assesses the extent to which DOD is ready to make informed decisions regarding disaggregating these systems. GAO reviewed documents and interviewed officials from over 35 offices within DOD, civilian agencies, contractors, and third parties to compile a list of factors relating to potential impacts of disaggregation. GAO used these factors, along with prior GAO work on best practices and space acquisitions, as criteria for evaluating DOD's work to date on assessing disaggregation.

What GAO Recommends

Before making decisions to disaggregate DOD space systems, DOD should (1) comprehensively examine the full range of potential effects of disaggregation, (2) develop common measures for resilience, and (3) expand demonstration efforts to examine the operational feasibility of disaggregation. DOD concurred with the first two recommendations and partially concurred with the third. GAO continues to believe DOD should demonstrate the operational feasibility of disaggregation.

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

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD has not yet developed common measures for resilience, but has stated standard metrics are under development. Results from a recent study by the National Security Space Enterprise Vision Tiger Team are expected to develop resilience requirements and options for attaining resiliency. DOD plans to use the Space Based Infrared System Follow-on as a test case for describing resilience as a system requirement. The Air Force approved a draft capability development document in February 2017, and a full capability development document is under development. In addition, DOD has identified mission assurance and resiliency as priorities for the next Space Strategic Portfolio Review. GAO's ongoing review of hosted payloads, to be conducted over the next year, will likely review issues related to this area.

    Recommendation: Before making decisions on whether to disaggregate DOD's protected satellite communications, SBIRS, or environmental monitoring satellite systems, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics to develop common measures for resilience.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD has not yet empirically quantified the benefits and limitations of disaggregation, or addressed longstanding barriers that could hinder its implementation, through a demonstration of operational feasibility. However, DOD stated it has considered the disaggregation of certain capabilities in previous war games, and lessons learned will be carried forward into future war games. For example, the most recent war games focused on ways to increase space system resilience by expanding and integrating international and private sector capabilities, and increasing the number of sensors and associated coverage.

    Recommendation: Before making decisions on whether to disaggregate DOD's protected satellite communications, SBIRS, or environmental monitoring satellite systems, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics to expand demonstration efforts to examine the operational feasibility of disaggregation by empirically quantifying its benefits and limitations as well as addressing longstanding barriers that could hinder its implementation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD has made progress toward assessing disaggregation through its analysis of alternatives (AOA) efforts for individual satellite programs within three areas: protected satellite communications services (PSCS), space-based environmental monitoring (SBEM), and the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS). However, DOD has not yet completed a comprehensive examination of the full range of disaggregation issues. DOD completed the SBEM AOA in October 2013, the SBIRS Follow-on AOA in December 2015, and the PSCS AOA in February 2016. These AOAs each included cost, capability, and risk analyses for aggregated and disaggregated alternatives, though each did not assess the full range of disaggregation issues for the subject area. For example, the SBEM AOA evaluated options including placing sensors on host satellites, placing satellites in different orbits, and relying on international and U.S. civil partners to provide some capabilities, but it focused on the space segment and did not analyze alternative ground segment components. The AOA team determined impacts to the ground segment would need to be assessed more thoroughly once DOD decided on a solution. In October 2016, the Air Force approved an acquisition strategy for the planned solution, called the Weather System Follow-on - Microwave. The program has not yet assessed ground segment impacts, but the Air Force stated it will be assessed further once a contract is awarded. For the PSCS and SBIRS areas, the Air Force conducted subsequent studies on resiliency in 2016, which evaluated the benefits of resiliency in future architectures for satellite communications missions and informed resilience requirements for the SBIRS Follow-on. GAO has ongoing work in these areas and plans to complete reviews of the AOAs in the fall of 2017 and a hosted payload review in the next year.

    Recommendation: Before making decisions on whether to disaggregate DOD's protected satellite communications, Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), or environmental monitoring satellite systems, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics to comprehensively examine--either through the Analysis of Alternatives studies or through other assessments--the full range of disaggregation issues, including those that go beyond the satellite systems themselves.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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