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Defense Logistics: Improvements Needed to Enhance Oversight of Estimated Long-term Costs for Operating and Supporting Major Weapon Systems

GAO-12-340 Published: Feb 02, 2012. Publicly Released: Feb 02, 2012.
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What GAO Found

DOD’s reports to Congress on estimated weapon system O&S costs are often inconsistent and sometimes unreliable, limiting visibility needed for effective oversight of these costs. The SAR statute requires that life-cycle cost reporting for major weapon systems be uniform, to the extent practicable, across the department, but GAO found a number of inconsistent practices in how program offices were reporting life-cycle O&S cost estimates in the SAR. Program offices were inconsistent in (1) the explanatory information they included with the cost estimates; (2) the source of the cost estimate they cited as the basis for the reported costs; (3) the unit of measure they used to portray average costs; (4) the frequency with which they updated reported costs; and (5) the reporting of costs for an antecedent system being replaced by the new weapon system. For example, 35 (42 percent) of the 84 programs that reported O&S costs in the 2010 SAR did not cite a source of these data, contrary to DOD’s guidance, and 57 (68 percent) of the programs did not report O&S costs for an antecedent system. Also, O&S cost submissions in the SAR did not always incorporate best practices for presenting cost estimates, such as tracking cost changes over time and identifying cost drivers. In addition, 11 systems did not provide O&S cost estimates in the 2010 SAR.

Although SARs are intended to provide Congress with authoritative program information on major weapon systems, 7 of the 15 sample programs GAO reviewed submitted unreliable O&S cost estimate data in the 2007, 2009, or 2010 SARs. For example, an Air Force program underreported O&S costs by $2.1 billion (fiscal year 2002 dollars), or 18 percent. While some of the program offices did not provide an explanation for the errors in the submitted data, others cited specific reasons. For example, one Navy program office underreported O&S costs in the SAR and explained that it excluded certain costs that were not under its control, such as externally funded spare parts and military personnel. However, excluding such costs is contrary to the SAR statute. An Air Force program reported current and projected funding for the program rather than estimated life-cycle O&S costs. This practice also had the effect of underreporting these costs.

DOD’s reports to Congress on estimated weapon system O&S costs were often inconsistent and sometimes unreliable due to a lack of (1) detailed implementation guidance for reporting these costs and (2) an effective process for reviewing the O&S cost sections of the SAR before final submission to Congress. DOD’s guidance collectively provides minimal instructions for O&S cost reporting. The guidance also does not incorporate some of the best practices GAO has identified for presenting cost estimates. Further, although the SAR data submitted by program offices are subject to multiple reviews within the military services and by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, this review process has not provided assurance that O&S costs are reported consistently and reliably. In the absence of improvements to the SAR guidance and to the review process, deficiencies in reporting O&S costs are likely to continue. Improved reporting of O&S costs in the SAR could help to place more emphasis on assessing, managing, and controlling long-term weapon system O&S costs.

Why GAO Did This Study

With the nation facing fiscal challenges and the potential for tighter defense budgets, Congress and the Department of Defense (DOD) have placed more attention on controlling the billions of dollars spent annually on weapon system operating and support (O&S) costs. These costs include, costs for repair parts, maintenance, and personnel, and account for about 70 percent of the total costs of a weapon system over its life cycle. The selected acquisition report (SAR) is DOD’s key recurring status report on the cost, schedule, and performance of major defense acquisition programs and is intended to provide authoritative information for congressional oversight of these programs. Oversight of O&S costs is important because many of the key decisions affecting these life-cycle costs are made during the acquisition process. GAO reviewed weapon system O&S cost estimates that DOD submits in the SAR. Specifically, GAO determined the extent to which the SARs provide consistent and reliable O&S cost estimate information that enables effective oversight of these weapon system costs. To conduct its review, GAO analyzed SAR data for 84 major systems that submitted O&S cost estimates in the 2010 SAR and selected a nonprobability sample of 15 systems for more in-depth review.


To enhance visibility of weapon system O&S costs during acquisition, GAO recommends that DOD improve its guidance to program offices on cost reporting and also improve its process for reviewing these costs prior to final submission of the SAR to Congress. DOD concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense To improve visibility over estimated life-cycle O&S costs during weapon system acquisition, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics to revise DOD's guidance for implementing statutory SAR requirements. The revisions, at a minimum, should provide additional detail on the following areas: (1) the explanatory information that should be included in the O&S narrative, including the specific assumptions underlying the cost estimate; (2) the source to be used as the basis for reported O&S cost estimate information, especially when more than one source is available (such as a program office cost estimate, service cost estimate, and CAPE independent cost estimate); (3) a consistent unit of measure for reporting average costs over time by commodity type-or other designated weapon system group-as agreed to by OSD and the services; (4) criteria for identifying an antecedent system and reporting on the results of the cost comparison in the SAR; and (5) reporting O&S costs for major modifications to existing weapon systems. In revising the guidance, the Under Secretary of Defense should incorporate best practices for preparing and presenting cost estimates, including: (1) a comparison of current-year to prior-year O&S cost estimates; the identification of cost drivers that resulted in changes in these estimates, if significant; and the level of detail that should be reported; (2) a comparison of the reported cost estimate with the most recent independent cost estimate, along with an explanation of any significant differences between the two estimates; and (3) The frequency with which O&S costs reported in the SAR should be updated, including guidance on what changes in the program's status should trigger an update.
Closed – Implemented
DOD has taken action to implement this recommendation. In recent updates to its guidance starting in December 2014, DOD directs program offices to provide explanatory information about the cost estimate, the source of the estimate, and the unit of measure for reporting costs. DOD also clarified guidance for reporting on the relevant antecedent system used for cost comparisons. The guidance also directs that costs for continued program improvements be reported in a specified cost table. In addition, DOD also has taken steps to incorporate best practices for reporting cost estimates, including analysis of cost variances from prior estimates. These enhancements meet the intent of our recommendation to improve the SAR guidance in order to provide better visibility over life-cycle O&S costs during weapon system acquisition.
Department of Defense To improve visibility over estimated life-cycle O&S costs during weapon system acquisition, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, in conjunction with the Secretaries of the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy, to evaluate the current review process, identify any weaknesses, and institute corrective actions as needed to provide greater assurance that estimated life-cycle O&S costs included in the SAR reports submitted by program offices consistently follow the implementation guidance, including any revisions to the guidance as described above, and report reliable cost data. As part of this evaluation, DOD should consider whether additional steps are necessary for the department to enhance the emphasis placed on reporting estimated life-cycle O&S costs in the SAR.
Closed – Not Implemented
DOD concurred with the recommendation and, in the agency comments to our report, indicated that it would convene a Joint OSD/DOD Component working group that would evaluate the current SAR review process to improve data quality for the estimated life cycle O&S costs reported in the SAR. During the recommendation follow-up we have conducted since 2013, DOD officials stated that they had not convened the working group or otherwise evaluated the SAR review process, and they did not indicate they have plans to do so in the future.

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