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Defense > 3. Defense Satellite Control Operations

Increased use of shared satellite control networks and leading practices within the Department of Defense could reduce fragmentation and potential duplication associated with dedicated systems, resulting in millions of dollars in savings annually.

Why This Area Is Important

The Department of Defense (DOD) uses both shared and dedicated satellite control networks located around the world to manage the nation’s defense satellites—satellites worth at least $13.7 billion. Satellite control networks are used to track and monitor the health of a satellite and to command it to ensure it performs its mission.[1] A shared control network can support several satellite systems and is able to share its antennas and software among different kinds of satellites. In contrast, a dedicated control network can operate only a single satellite system, and its assets are generally not shared with other satellite systems. Over the past 50 years, and especially in the last decade, DOD’s decision to increasingly deploy dedicated satellite control networks in lieu of integrating them into a larger shared satellite control network reflects more of a preference by satellite program managers than a need. DOD is currently operating at least a dozen dedicated satellite control networks that typically do not share assets or personnel with other dedicated or shared networks. While dedicated networks offer advantages to the specific satellite systems they serve, shared networks offer potential advantages DOD-wide in leveraging hardware, software, and personnel.

[1]Satellite control operations essentially consist of (1) tracking—determining the satellite’s location based on position and range measurements to receive commands from the ground, (2) telemetry—collecting health and status reports that are transmitted from the satellite to the ground, and (3) commanding—transmitting signals from the ground to the satellite to control satellite subsystems.

What GAO Found

As GAO reported in April 2013, DOD satellite control networks are fragmented and potentially duplicative, yet DOD continues to increasingly deploy dedicated satellite control operations networks as opposed to shared systems that support multiple kinds of satellites. Dedicated networks can offer some benefits to programs, including potential reduced risks, e.g., ensuring continuous contact with a satellite, and greater customization for a particular program’s needs. However, they can also be more costly to maintain and have led to a fragmented, and potentially duplicative, approach that requires more infrastructure and personnel to manage than shared ground operations. The figure below shows that DOD’s share of satellite programs using dedicated networks has increased since 1960.

Proportions of Satellite Programs Using Shared or Dedicated Infrastructure by Decade since 1960

Proportions of Satellite Programs Using Shared or Dedicated Infrastructure by Decade since 1960

DOD’s use of dedicated networks has resulted in fragmented and potentially duplicative operations and inefficiencies across its satellite control operations. For example, one Air Force base has 10 satellite programs operated by eight separate control centers. Further, the Air Force alone funded about $2.1 billion in fiscal year 2011 on satellite operations.[1] As of February 2013, Air Force officials stated that the Air Force had not worked to move its current dedicated operations to a shared satellite control network, which could better leverage investments. DOD officials recognize the value of reducing fragmented and potentially duplicative operations, and stated that they are working on a path forward.

Regarding DOD’s largest shared satellite control network, the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN), DOD has described this network, originally fielded in 1959, as fragmented and lacking standardization and interoperability. The AFSCN provides support for launch, command, and control of various space programs managed primarily by DOD and other national security space organizations. For example, DOD’s Defense Satellite Communications System, a communications satellite, is supported by the AFSCN. The Air Force has budgeted approximately $400 million to sustain the AFSCN at its current level of capability over the next 5 years to extend the network’s life by replacing obsolete equipment. However, these efforts do not apply a decade of research recommending more significant improvements that would increase the AFSCN capabilities and interoperability. In May 1999, GAO reported that DOD, including the AFSCN, had made minimal progress in integrating and improving its satellite control operations capabilities in accordance with the then-existing national space policy.[2] More recently, in 2008, the Commander of the Air Force Space Command issued a memorandum describing the need for increased satellite control operations efficiencies, improved interoperability, and consolidated functions. Despite these recommendations, which were made over the course of almost two decades, no department-wide long-term plan currently exists for modernizing DOD’s Air Force Satellite Control Network and any future shared satellite control services and capabilities.

In addition to finding fragmented and potentially duplicative systems, we also found DOD has not adopted practices that could vastly increase the efficiency of its networks. Commercial satellite companies incorporate varying degrees of interoperability, automation, and other practices into their satellite control operations networks to decrease program costs and increase efficiencies. While commercial satellites and DOD satellites can differ greatly in their missions, and to some extent may differ in their need for information security, basic satellite control operations functions of most of these satellites are generally the same. Air Force satellite control officials have stated that some or all of the following practices from the commercial sector could be applied to many DOD satellite programs, resulting in increased efficiencies and reduced costs.

  • Interoperability: Interoperable satellite control operations networks allow a single operator to control multiple satellites from one terminal with one software interface, regardless of the satellite’s age or manufacturer.
  • Automation: Use of automation for routine functions, such as downloading telemetry data, allows companies to reduce the number of operators, which may reduce the risk of human errors.
  • Commercial-off-the-shelf products: Commercial-off-the-shelf products are less expensive than custom products and easier to replace when needed, and they can be tailored to meet each company’s or user’s needs.
  • Hybrid network: A hybrid network arrangement allows a company to augment its ground network of antennas and control stations by leasing antenna time on another company’s network.

While opportunities exist to improve DOD satellite control operations, certain barriers hinder DOD’s ability to increase the use of shared networks or incorporate trusted practices, including the following:

  • DOD is unable to quantify all spending on satellite ground control operations across DOD programs. The lack of cost data means that DOD cannot perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine the proper mix of shared and dedicated networks and whether the potential benefits of individual programs using dedicated networks outweigh the potential drawbacks of continued or increased systemic fragmentation and inefficiency.
  • Satellite programs are not required to present a business case for proceeding with a dedicated or shared network, or to validate their network’s requirements.[4] Without the requirement to weigh potential trade-offs in performance with potential reductions in cost, DOD cannot strategically determine if its current options of shared and dedicated networks are the best option or whether other options, such as hybrid networks, might be better suited to meet its satellite control operational needs.
  • There is no DOD-wide guidance or long-term plan that directs or supports the implementation of alternative methods for performing satellite control operations. DOD’s current array of satellite control networks favors dedicated systems that have been largely shaped by past practices and complicates DOD’s ability to effectively implement improvements across its varied satellite control operations.

These barriers have hindered DOD’s ability to achieve optimal satellite control systems that would result in cost savings in this area. At the moment, DOD also lacks the incentive to change its current practices, in part because it does not know the total cost associated with its satellite control operations.


[1]This total includes Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation; Operation and Maintenance (O&M); Personnel; and, Other Procurement funds. Air Force officials could provide only 1 fiscal year of funding for satellite operations.

[2]The current policy (National Space Policy of the United States of America [June 28, 2010]) does not specifically direct DOD to integrate and improve its satellite control operations.

[3]Currently, the Universal Space Network is the only U.S. company that operates a satellite control network as a leased, pay-as-you-go arrangement for customers.

[4]While business case analyses are required for milestone B certification of major defense acquisition programs, which is approval to enter system development, there is not a specific requirement or policy to analyze whether or not to use a shared satellite control operations network. 10 U.S.C. § 2366b(a); Interim DOD Instruction 5000.02, Operation of the Defense Acquisition System, Encl. 1, Table 2 (Nov.25, 2013). Major defense acquisition programs are those estimated by DOD to require an eventual total expenditure for research, development, test, and evaluation of more than $480 million, or for procurement of more than $2.79 billion, including all planned increments or spirals, in fiscal year 2014 constant dollars.

Actions Needed

To better facilitate the conduct of satellite control operations and accountability for the estimated millions of dollars in satellite control investments, and to reduce fragmentation, GAO recommended in April 2013 that the Secretary of Defense take the following two actions:

  • Conduct an analysis at the beginning of a new satellite acquisition to determine a business case for proceeding with either a shared or a dedicated satellite control system, to include its associated ground antenna network. The analysis should include a comparison of total dedicated network costs to the incremental cost of integrating onto a shared network to determine applicable cost savings and efficiencies.
  • Develop a department-wide long-term plan for modernizing DOD’s Air Force Satellite Control Network and any future shared satellite control services and capabilities. This plan should identify methods that can capture or estimate satellite control costs as well as authorities that can be given to the program managers to give them the flexibility needed to ensure ground systems are built to a common network when the business case analysis shows doing so to be beneficial. This plan should also identify which trusted practices from the commercial sector, if any, can improve DOD satellite control operations in the near and long terms and, as appropriate, develop a plan of action for implementing them.

Estimating the extent of potential cost savings is difficult because of the lack of both cost data and analysis completed by the Air Force. Furthermore, DOD lacks the information to determine the extent and appropriateness of pursuing a shared satellite control operations network, which would be necessary in order to estimate cost savings. However, GAO’s analysis of cost savings for which data are available suggests that savings could be in the millions or hundreds of millions of dollars annually. GAO’s two recommendations are intended to improve DOD’s ability to identify and then assess the appropriateness of a shared versus dedicated satellite control system, the feasibility of incorporating commercial practices in current and future satellite programs for increased efficiencies and cost reductions, and to focus these decisions on developing a long-term plan for all systems.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on GAO’s April 2013 report in the related GAO products section and additional work GAO conducted. To assess the status of modernization efforts and the costs associated with current and planned upgrades and sustainment efforts for the AFSCN, GAO analyzed budget documents and program documentation to determine how the Air Force defined and was proceeding with its modernization efforts for the AFSCN. To determine which commercial practices could benefit the Air Force’s satellite control operations, GAO selected a nongeneralizable sample of 13 commercial companies that are known in the space community to operate satellites and have knowledge of satellite control operations and based on their satellite constellation size, orbits, and capabilities. To identify any potential barriers to DOD of implementing these commercial practices, GAO analyzed documentation such as DOD and other government studies on the organization of satellite control operations, and interviewed DOD and commercial officials. GAO used the information to assess any barriers affecting the funding, cost, schedule, and performance of satellite control operations.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the April 2013 report on which this analysis is based, DOD concurred with GAO’s two recommendations. DOD further stated that it will work with the military services to identify resources to initiate a comprehensive Satellite Operations Enterprise Architectural Analysis to provide a foundation for defining requirements for new satellite program acquisitions with the objective to reduce duplication, foster consolidation, and improve interoperability.

Subsequent to GAO’s 2013 report, the President signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 on December 26, 2013 which includes GAO’s recommendations on the conduct of DOD’s satellite control operations. Specifically, section 822 of the Act directs DOD to:

  • perform a cost benefit analysis for any new or follow-on satellite system using a dedicated ground control system instead of a shared ground control system; and,
  • develop a DOD-wide long-term plan for satellite ground control systems, to include the Air Force Satellite Control Network.[1]

GAO provided a draft of this report section to DOD for review and comment. On February 10, 2014, the Director of Cyber and Space Programs, within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics stated that the DOD will comply with the enacted law. 

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

[1] Pub. L. No. 113-66, § 822 (2013).

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