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Science and the environment > 22. Coordination of Space System Organizations

Fragmented leadership has led to program challenges and potential duplication in developing multibillion-dollar space systems.

Why This Area Is Important

U.S. government space systems provide a wide range of capabilities such as Global Positioning System, weather, climatology, meteorology, missile warning, and secure communications to a large number of users, including the Department of Defense (DOD), the intelligence community, civil agencies, U.S. businesses and citizens, and/or other countries. More than $25 billion a year is appropriated to agencies for developing space systems. These systems typically take a long time to develop, and often consist of multiple components—including satellites, ground control stations, terminals, and user equipment—with different program offices that oftentimes separately plan, acquire, and deploy individual system components. Moreover, the nation’s satellites are put into orbit by rockets that can cost more than of $100 million per launch. Given these components, often costing billions of dollars to acquire, recent GAO studies have shown that costs of space programs tend to increase significantly from initial cost estimates. A May 2011 GAO testimony showed that estimated costs for the major Defense space acquisition programs have increased by about $13.9 billion from initial estimates for fiscal years 2010 through 2015, almost a 286 percent increase. NASA space programs have also wrestled with excessive cost growth. While many of the programs have provided users with important and useful capabilities, GAO and others have reported for a number of years that, in some cases, problems with these systems have been so severe that acquisitions were either canceled or the needed capabilities were severely delayed, and that fragmented leadership has been a factor in some of these problems.

What GAO Found

Fragmented leadership and lack of a single authority in overseeing the acquisition of space programs have created challenges for optimally acquiring, developing, and deploying new space systems. This fragmentation is problematic not only because of a lack of coordination that has led to delays in fielding systems, but also because no one person or organization is held accountable for balancing governmentwide needs against wants, resolving conflicts and ensuring coordination among the many organizations involved with space acquisitions, and ensuring that resources are directed where they are most needed. Past studies and reviews examining the leadership, organization, and management of national security space have found that there is no single authority responsible below the President for integrating space programs, and responsibilities for acquiring space systems are diffused across various DOD organizations—including the military services and the Missile Defense Agency—as well as the intelligence community and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A variety of other agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of Homeland Security rely on government space systems to execute their missions. As indicated in these studies and reviews, each military service or agency that acquires space systems has its own lines of acquisition authority, even though many of the larger programs, such as the Global Positioning System and those to acquire imagery and environmental satellites, are integral to the execution of multiple agencies’ missions. With multiagency space programs, success is often only possible with cooperation and coordination; however, successful and productive coordination appears to be the exception and not the rule.

GAO previously reported on how this fragmented leadership and lack of coordination has contributed to problems for the development, acquisition, and fielding of space programs. Examples of programs affected and their challenges are presented in the table below.

Selected Space Programs GAO Reviewed Where Fragmentation and Lack of Coordination Affected Development and Acquisition

Program name

Problems resulting from a lack of coordination

Global Positioning System (GPS)

The GPS program is currently being modernized to replace and update the aging satellite constellation with new GPS satellites, which will provide warfighters with a stronger and more secure military signal. Moreover, there is an interagency structure in place to help coordinate requirements and resolve issues related to GPS. However, modernized military user equipment that DOD is concurrently developing with the new satellites has suffered schedule delays and is not expected to be fully fielded to all of the military services until 2025—10 years after the new military signal from the satellites is expected to reach full operational capability. GAO previously reported in April 2009 that the coordination of the satellite and user equipment segments is not adequately synchronized due to funding shifts and diffuse leadership in the program, likely leading to numerous years of missed opportunities to utilize new capabilities. DOD has taken some steps to better coordinate the GPS segments. DOD created the Space and Intelligence Office within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics to ensure that all three segments of GPS stay synchronized in the development and acquisition processes. However, that office does not have authority over all user equipment. DOD also conducted enterprise reviews of the program; however, it has not gone as far as GAO recommended to establish a single authority responsible for ensuring that all GPS segments, including user equipment, are synchronized to the maximum extent practicable.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS)

NPOESS was an attempt to converge defense and civil environmental monitoring requirements and avoid duplication through a tri-agency program office, with each participating agency (DOD, NOAA, and NASA) having the lead on certain activities but no single authority to adjudicate conflicts or set priorities. Along with technical and design challenges that arose from decisions related to requirements, the lack of an effective leadership structure to prioritize requirements and resolve interagency conflicts contributed to restructuring of NPOESS. GAO previously reported in June 2009 that the interagency program structure did not effectively fulfill its responsibilities and did not have the ability to effectively or efficiently oversee and direct the NPOESS program. No authority at a level higher than the involved agencies was charged with coordinating the program to ensure resources were used for the greatest need, and this led to significant program delays. By the end of fiscal year 2010, the U.S. government had spent 16 years and over $5 billion to develop NPOESS, but had not launched a single satellite, resulting in a potential capability gap for weather and environmental monitoring. Consequently, in February 2010, citing the program’s cost overruns, schedule delays, and management problems, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that that the NPOESS tri-agency structure would be eliminated and the program would be restructured by splitting procurements and responsibilities.a Given this restructuring, GAO recommended in May 2010 that NOAA and DOD establish plans to mitigate key risks in transitioning from NPOESS to the successor satellite programs, including ensuring effective oversight of program management, and addressing cost and schedule implications from contract and program changes. GAO reported that both agencies have acknowledged these risks, but have not yet established plans to mitigate these risks. For example, NOAA could not provide firm time frames for completing its management control plan and DOD never formally started its follow-on space weather satellite program, though it was attempting to pull together key acquisition documents. Moving forward, it will be important for the agencies to continue efforts to mitigate these risks in order to ensure the success of their respective environmental monitoring programs.



Space Radar

The Space Radar program faced significant affordability issues, along with leadership and management challenges that eventually contributed to the program’s cancellation. Started in 2003, Space Radar was a collaborative effort between DOD and the intelligence community to provide global, all-weather, day and night intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, particularly in denied areas. Space Radar was to consist of a constellation of satellites, a ground system, and a communications network that included ground-, air-, ship-, and space-based platforms. The initial cost estimate for Space Radar was between $20 and $25 billion, but the program did not have long-term funding agreements in place or an adjudication process for prioritizing and resolving the tasking from various users. GAO previously reported in August 2007 that cooperation between DOD and the intelligence community on the program could face challenges and an independent review found that the program lacked an effective way to resolve disagreements between the partners. Further, the program faced challenges including a potentially accelerated schedule, questions about system affordability, and difficulty defining key requirements. By 2008, DOD and the intelligence community decided to stop developing the Space Radar program, citing affordability issues, even though millions of dollars had already been spent and no immediate follow-on effort was continued to leverage this investment.

Space Situational Awareness

GAO previously reported in May 2011 that Space Situational Awareness acquisition efforts experienced challenges due to a lack of governmentwide authority. Space Situational Awareness efforts are designed to mitigate threats to U.S. space systems via a variety of space- and ground-based sensors and systems that detect, track, and characterize space objects and space-related events, and forecast which assets may be at risk. DOD has responsibility, with support from the Director of National Intelligence, for the development, acquisition, operation, maintenance, and modernization of Space Situational Awareness capabilities governmentwide. The Space Situational Awareness community consists of a diverse and large array of stakeholders, and while the National Space Policy assigns Space Situational Awareness responsibility to the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary cannot direct resources to the highest priority systems if they belong to an agency outside DOD, or ensure that agencies are setting aside funding needed for Space Situational Awareness over the long term. This complicates program oversight and operations and presents significant challenges to executing and overseeing the Space Situational Awareness mission. GAO has reported that development efforts have been hampered by cost, schedule, and performance challenges, and that in the past 5 fiscal years DOD has not delivered significant new Space Situational Awareness capabilities as originally expected. GAO also reported that the new National Space Policy increases the number of stakeholders that must participate in the development of planning documents that, among other things, identify the roles to manage national security space capabilities and develop specific measures for improving Space Situational Awareness capabilities. While identifying roles and having input from more Space Situational Awareness stakeholders are positive first steps and may result in more inclusive and robust planning efforts, it is too early to assess the effect of these provisions on managing and overseeing governmentwide Space Situational Awareness efforts.

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Defense and GAO information.

aThe announcement accompanied the release of the President’s fiscal year 2011 budget request.


In addition, based on preliminary ongoing work, GAO has found the potential for duplication among satellite operations infrastructure within the federal government. This preliminary work indicates that there are multiple stove piped ground systems and duplication of facilities and hardware. This preliminary work also indicates the potential for duplication with satellites across the government in certain mission areas, such as for remote sensing. GAO plans to further examine these efforts in more detail in the near future.

Since late 2009, DOD has taken a number of initiatives to improve leadership over defense space acquisitions, but these actions have not been in place long enough to determine whether acquisition outcomes will improve. To improve leadership over space acquisitions, DOD has (1) established the Defense Space Council to serve as the principal advisory forum to inform, coordinate, and resolve all DOD space issues, to include implementation of the National Security Space Strategy; (2) designated the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (USD AT&L) to serve as the Office of the Secretary of Defense focal point for space programs; (3) reaffirmed the Secretary of the Air Force as the DOD Executive Agent for Space, to integrate and assess DOD’s overall space program, provide recommended adjustments to the space budget and facilitate increased cooperation with the Intelligence Community and (4) eliminated organizations believed to be redundant and/or ineffective. DOD officials also cite various changes at the Air Force level that better align and unify space acquisition. Further, the new National Space Policy that was issued in 2010 also takes some steps to clarifying responsibilities for space programs among government entities. These changes hold promise to strengthen unity of efforts across DOD’s space portfolio as they seek to streamline authority for acquisitions, establish a process for prioritizing investments, and develop tools to ensure greater coordination. However, it is too early to determine if they resolve fragmentation that exists within DOD and between DOD and the intelligence community. Moreover, they do not extend to the space activities across the government.

In addition, according to OMB, the administration has taken several steps to enhance the coordination of space activities among and between civil and national security agencies including (1) conducting Interagency Policy Committee meetings on government-wide space-related issues; (2) creating and supporting agency-led coordination mechanisms for specific space topics or programs where appropriate; and (3) tasking agencies to develop joint plans and responses for addressing cross-sector space challenges, such as improving U.S. launch infrastructure or enhancing space situational awareness. While these steps may help increase coordination among agencies, they do not appear to set funding priorities and it is unclear whether they will help to resolve the conflicts between agencies that have lead to management and acquisition problems.

GAO has not made recommendations with regard to broader governmentwide leadership for space, but in previous reports GAO has recommended a number of changes to the leadership of specific sectors of the space community, including (1) assigning a single authority to oversee the development of the overall GPS capability, with authority to ensure DOD space, ground control, and user equipment are synchronized to the maximum extent practicable and (2) increasing coordination of launch vehicle acquisitions across federal agencies in order to increase efficiencies and cost savings. Several congressional commissions and other studies have also made recommendations for strengthening national security space authorities, including establishing a new Under Secretary of Defense for Space who would have authority over the planning and execution of the national security space program and a senior interagency group to focus on policy formulation and coordination of space activities. But these commissions did not look at the need for an authority that would also cover civilian agencies with space responsibilities.

Actions Needed

GAO and others have recommended a number of changes to the leadership of the space community and have consistently reported that a lack of strong, centralized leadership has led to inefficiencies and other problems. But the question still looms as to what office or leadership structure above the department level would be effective and appropriate for coordinating all U.S. government space programs and setting priorities. Working with the National Security Council, the Director of Office of Management and Budget should

  • assess whether a construct analogous to the Defense Space Council could be applied government wide or if a separate organization should be established that would have greater authority for setting priorities than individual departments and agencies as well as responsibility for strategic planning. Given the complexity, diversity, and sensitivity of the many organizations involved in space and long-standing resistance to centralized leadership structures or even partnerships among agencies, we realize such an action could not be implemented quickly and would require a phased implementation approach.

Having a single authority responsible for ensuring coordination and setting priorities between U.S. space entities could have numerous benefits. It could reduce the fragmentation of authority and leadership in the space community and thereby help ensure coordination between multiple players, and improve synchronization of space program acquisitions to help avoid the past problems of interdependent capabilities coming online at different times. In addition, this authority would be in a better position than any one department or agency to determine the best use of limited funds and resources by more effectively prioritizing the most highly needed space programs, and would have the authority to reduce duplication across programs. While the Defense Space Council could fill the role as a single high level authority within DOD, this same construct could be used, such as a National Space Council, to coordinate and set priorities across the government.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products listed in the related GAO products section. In previous work to assess DOD’s Space Situational Awareness efforts to determine the extent to which an integrated approach was being used to manage and oversee efforts to develop Space Situational Awareness capabilities, GAO analyzed documents and interviewed officials from 30 organizations within the Space Situational Awareness stakeholder community—users and providers of Space Situational Awareness information represented by DOD, the intelligence community, civil government agencies, and commercial industry—to examine (1) management and oversight efforts to develop, acquire, and manage Space Situational Awareness capabilities; and (2) planning activities for Space Situational Awareness architectures, investments, and requirements. GAO also analyzed documentation and interviewed officials from DOD and commercial industry to assess the benefits and challenges relating to DOD’s implementation of its Space Situational Awareness-sharing program (formerly the Commercial and Foreign Entities program) under which Space Situational Awareness information is to be shared among DOD, industry, and foreign entities for collision avoidance purposes. In previous work to assess GPS coordination efforts, GAO reviewed recent documentation regarding the delivery of capabilities and equipment and assessed the level of synchronization among satellites, ground systems, and user equipment.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact


DOD has expressed mixed views on the need for clearer lines of authority for space. For example, DOD agreed with GAO’s recommendation in April 2009 to appoint a single authority to oversee the development of the GPS system, including space, ground control, and user equipment assets, to ensure that the program is well executed, resourced, and that potential disruptions are minimized. But it asserted that GPS’s current leadership structure was sufficient. Before GAO issued its May 2011 report on space situational awareness, the administration issued the new National Space Policy, which has the potential to resolve concerns GAO identified with leadership. In responding to this assessment, DOD acknowledged the need for a cleaner space and acquisition leadership structure. DOD officials believe that space acquisition programs have turned a corner and are successfully deploying far more capable systems in almost all major space mission areas. NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office did not have comments on this assessment.

The Office of Management and Budget agreed that coordinating space activities across the U.S. government has been and continues to be a major challenge, but is concerned that the GAO recommendation would add an extra layer of space bureaucracy on top of ongoing coordination efforts.OMB acknowledges the potential for improved coordination, but is concerned about additional costs and possible confusion regarding roles and authorities among the existing mechanisms. GAO believes that the recommendation is sufficiently flexible to allow for an implementation approach that would address these concerns. As part of GAO’s routine audit work, GAO will continue to track agency actions to address these recommendations and report to Congress.

For additional information about this area, contact Cristina Chaplain at (202) 512-4841 or

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