Satellite Control: Long-Term Planning and Adoption of Commercial Practices Could Improve DOD's Operations

GAO-13-315 Published: Apr 18, 2013. Publicly Released: Apr 18, 2013.
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What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) satellite control networks are fragmented and potentially duplicative. Over the past decade, DOD has increasingly deployed standalone satellite control operations networks, which are designed to operate a single satellite system, as opposed to shared systems that can operate multiple kinds of satellites. Dedicated networks can offer many benefits to programs, including possible lower risks and customization for a particular program's needs. However, they can also be more costly and have led to a fragmented, and potentially duplicative, approach which requires more infrastructure and personnel than shared operations. For example, one Air Force base has 10 satellite programs operated by 8 separate control centers. According to Air Force officials, DOD continues to acquire standalone networks and has not worked to move its current standalone operations towards a shared satellite control network, which could better leverage DOD investments.

The Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN), DOD's primary shared satellite control network, is undergoing modernization efforts, but these will not increase the network's capabilities. The Air Force budgeted about $400 million over the next 5 years for these efforts. However, these efforts primarily focus on sustaining the network at its current level of capability and do not apply a decade of research recommending more significant improvements to the AFSCN that would increase its capabilities.

Commercial practices have the potential to increase the efficiency and decrease costs of DOD satellite control operations. These practices include: interoperability between satellite control operations networks; automation of routine satellite control operations functions; use of commercial off-the-shelf products instead of custom ones; and a "hybrid" network approach which allows a satellite operator to augment its network through another operator's complementary network. Both the Air Force and commercial officials GAO spoke to agree that there are opportunities for the Air Force to increase efficiencies and lower costs through these practices. Numerous studies by DOD and other government groups have recommended implementing or considering these practices, the Air Force has generally not incorporated them into Air Force satellite control operations networks.

DOD faces four barriers that complicate its ability to make improvements to its satellite control networks and adopt commercial practices. First, DOD has no long-term plan for satellite control operations. Second, the agency lacks reliable data on the costs of its current control networks and is unable to isolate satellite control costs from other expenses. Third, there is no requirement for satellite programs to establish a business case for their chosen satellite control operations approach. And fourth, even if program managers wanted to make satellite control operations improvements, they do not have the autonomy to implement changes at the program level. Until DOD begins addressing these barriers by implementing a long-term plan for future satellite control network investments that can capture estimates of satellite control costs as well as authorities that can be given to program managers and incorporates commercial practices, the department's ability to achieve significant improvements in satellite control operations capabilities will be hindered.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD manages the nation's defense satellites, which are worth at least $13.7 billion, via ground stations located around the world. These ground stations and supporting infrastructure perform three primary functions: monitoring the health of the satellite; ensuring it stays in its proper orbit; (activities collectively known as satellite control operations), and planning, monitoring, and controlling the execution of the overall mission of the satellite. Based on the House Armed Services Committee Report and discussions with defense committee staff, GAO (1) reviewed the Air Force's satellite control operations to assess the potential for fragmentation or duplication, (2) assessed the status of modernization efforts, (3) identified any commercial practices that could improve the Air Force's satellite control operations, and (4) identified any barriers to implementing them. GAO reviewed modernization funding documents, related studies and interviewed DOD and 7 commercial satellite companies, from a nongeneralizable sample selected in part because of their companies' satellite capabilities.

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GAO recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct future DOD satellite acquisition programs to determine a business case for proceeding with either a dedicated or shared network for that program's satellite control operations and develop a department-wide long-term plan for modernizing its AFSCN and any future shared networks and implementing commercial practices to improve DOD satellite control networks. DOD concurred with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense 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, the Secretary of Defense should conduct an analysis at the beginning of a new satellite acquisition to determine a business case for proceeding with either a shared or 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.
Closed – Implemented
On April 18, 2017, the Air Force Director of Strategic Plans, Programs, Requirements and Analysis at Air Force Space Command, issued guidance which mandates that all existing and new space acquisition efforts and prototypes transition to the Enterprise Ground Services no later than 2027. The Enterprise Ground Services is to enhance cross-mission data exploitation and leverage common services, as opposed to optimizing within stovepipes. As such, the guidance meets the intent of the recommendation, which is to better facilitate the conduct of satellite control operations and to reduce fragmentation.
Department of Defense 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, the Secretary of Defense should develop a department-wide long-term plan for modernizing its 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 it to be beneficial. This plan should also identify which commercial practices, if any, can improve DOD satellite control operations in the near- and long-term, and as appropriate, develop a plan of action for implementing them.
Closed – Not Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation and stated that a long-term department-wide plan for modernizing its satellite control operations enterprise was needed. In April 2014, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, Pub. L. No. 113-66, ? 822 (2013) directed DOD to develop a DOD-wide long-term plan for satellite ground control systems, to include the Air Force Satellite Control Network. In May 2018, a draft DOD satellite ground control system plan was to be approved and signed by the Principal DOD Space Advisor; however, the Principal DOD Space Advisor role was terminated the same year. As of July 2019, DOD officials could not determine the status of the satellite control system plan given the elimination of the Principal DOD Space Advisor position.

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