Nuclear Weapons:

DOE Needs to Improve Oversight of the $5 Billion Strategic Computing Initiative

RCED-99-195: Published: Jun 28, 1999. Publicly Released: Jun 28, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the status of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), focusing on: (1) whether the program is meeting its key milestones and whether hardware and software developments are adequate to date; (2) whether the program is within its projected budget; and (3) what key technical risks the program faces.

GAO noted that: (1) weak management and information processes hamper oversight of the strategic computing initiative; (2) although initiative managers report that many milestones have been met, the lack of comprehensive planning and progress tracking systems make assessment of the initiative's progress difficult and subjective; (3) the initiative's strategic plan is out of date, annual plans have been prepared only sporadically, and milestones are not well defined; (4) little information exists to track the initiative's progress or to compare its accomplishments with its milestones; (5) consequently, it is difficult to determine which of the hundreds of milestones have been met, which are behind schedule, or even which are still relevant, given changes in the initiative; (6) program cost estimates have increased substantially; (7) in 1995, DOE estimated that costs for the first 5 years of the initiative (fiscal year (FY) 1996 through FY 2001) would be $1.7 billion; (8) by 1999, estimated costs for that same 5-year period increased to $2.9 billion; (9) DOE estimates that the program will cost about $5.2 billion for FY 1996 through FY 2004; (10) some of the cost increases result from the shift to computer-based simulations, while some reflect weaknesses in DOE's cost estimation; (11) developing a computer simulation, or virtual test capability, that, in the absence of nuclear testing, can be used to determine whether a weapon system will perform as intended requires overcoming significant technical challenges; and (12) these challenges range from developing state-of-the-art hardware and software technologies, to integrating scientific data from weapons physics experiments, to recruiting and retaining staff with the needed technical expertise.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE agreed with this recommendation and took action to: (1) specify the criteria for all critical milestones; (2) develop an annual implementation with task descriptions and program milestones; and (3) instituted a quarterly progress reporting system.

    Recommendation: Given the ASCI program's lack of a comprehensive planning, tracking, and reporting system and the importance of the program to maintaining the stockpile of nuclear weapons, it is important that DOE improve its oversight and management of the program. Therefore, the Secretary of Energy should require establishment of a comprehensive planning, tracking, and reporting system. This system should, at a minimum, establish clear milestones; identify links between short- and long-term milestones; identify research strategies, critical paths, and decision points; define performance criteria for the successful completion of milestones; and establish progress tracking and reporting requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE disagreed with this recommendation and does not plan to take action.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should designate the ASCI program as a strategic system warranting oversight at the highest departmental level.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE disagreed with this recommendation. DOE believes that its existing cost tracking system is appropriate and that a research and development program like the strategic computing initiative requires some budget flexibility.

    Recommendation: Given the substantial increases in the ASCI program's cost estimates to date, DOE's acknowledged problem in estimating costs for the unprecedented scale of development efforts involved in the ASCI program, and the lack of a cost-tracking process, it is important that DOE improve its oversight of ASCI program costs. Therefore, the Secretary of Energy should require that ASCI adopt systematic cost-tracking procedures that will allow DOE managers to determine if specific projects are within budget.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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