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Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine If Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight

GAO-16-592R Published: Jul 27, 2016. Publicly Released: Jul 27, 2016.
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What GAO Found

National security space leadership responsibilities are fragmented across approximately 60 stakeholder organizations within the Department of Defense (DOD), the Executive Office of the President, the Intelligence Community, and civilian agencies. Officials and experts generally said that no one seems to be in charge of space acquisitions. According to officials and experts, DOD space acquisitions generally take too long due to fragmented leadership, a redundant oversight bureaucracy, and difficulty coordinating among numerous stakeholders. While these challenges are not limited to space-related acquisition efforts, officials and experts stated that the problems are often magnified because space technologies are frequently obsolete by the time they are deployed.

Issues associated with fragmentation in space leadership have been studied in depth over the last 20 years by GAO and others. Four generally acknowledged major studies during that period recommended a number of changes to defense space acquisition management and oversight, many of which have not been adopted by DOD. With increasing space-based threats to national security, DOD has recently made some changes aimed at unifying space leadership. Specifically, in October 2015 the Deputy Secretary of Defense designated the Secretary of the Air Force as the Principal DOD Space Advisor (PDSA) with responsibilities that include: promoting a unified approach to space issues; overseeing the entire DOD space portfolio; and serving as an independent advisor on all space matters to top DOD officials.

Officials and experts remain skeptical that the recently designated PDSA role will have sufficient decision-making authority to effectively consolidate fragmented leadership responsibilities. However, PDSA officials and others expressed a strong belief that it does. It is still too early to gauge the efficacy of the PDSA, although PDSA plans to develop metrics to assess effectiveness.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD relies on space systems to provide critical capabilities that support military and other government operations, including communications; missile warning; positioning, navigation, and timing; and intelligence information. These systems can be very challenging to develop and expensive to acquire and field. Our past work has shown that, in addition to these challenges, fragmentation and overlap in DOD space acquisition management and oversight contribute to program delays and cancellations, cost increases, and inefficient operations.

In Senate Report 114-49 accompanying S.1376, a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, the Senate Armed Services Committee included a provision for GAO to review the effectiveness of the current DOD space acquisition and oversight model and to evaluate what changes, if any, could be considered to improve the governance of space system acquisitions and operations. This report formally transmits information we provided in a briefing to the congressional defense committees on May 17, 2016, to meet our reporting requirement. This report addresses the following: (1) what organizations are responsible for DOD’s management and oversight of space system acquisitions; (2) what recommendations have been made for improvements to DOD’s management and oversight of space acquisitions over the last two decades, and what major changes have occurred in that time period; (3) what persistent challenges, if any, has DOD experienced in its management and oversight of space acquisitions, and what changes could be considered for improvement?

To conduct this work, we reviewed relevant DOD documentation and interviewed officials with space-related responsibilities from organizations including the services, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the National Reconnaissance Office; selected a nongeneralizable sample of 17 experienced space industry professionals based on recommendations from current and retired DOD, industry, and congressional officials; and analyzed applicable DOD directives and memos to determine changes in space-related organization authorities and responsibilities.


We are not making any recommendations. DOD disagreed with GAO for publishing this report at this time citing concerns that it might be too early to tell if reforms, including the designation of the PDSA, are working. However, GAO believes there is value in considering a range of reform alternatives as suggested by DOD officials and experts, including allowing time to evaluate whether recent reforms will prove effective. Additional technical comments from DOD have been incorporated as appropriate.

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