Space Command and Control: Opportunities Exist to Enhance Annual Reporting

GAO-22-104685 Published: Dec 22, 2021. Publicly Released: Dec 22, 2021.
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Fast Facts

DOD relies on space- and ground-based systems for command and control of satellites and other space assets. Commanders rely on these systems to reduce risks, e.g., from adversaries or space debris. However, for decades, efforts to improve space command and control have gone over budget, been late, and left key capabilities undelivered.

In 2019, Congress required the Air Force to submit annual reports on these efforts.

We found its 2020 and 2021 reports addressed the required elements, but lacked key information for oversight. For example, a program objective was changed without explanation. Our recommendations address this and other issues.

illustration of earth from space

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Highlights

What GAO Found

In recent years, the Department of Defense has recognized that potential adversaries may target its space assets during conflicts to diminish U.S. capabilities. The Space Command and Control (C2) program is the Air Force's latest software-intensive effort to develop a system that gathers data from space- and ground-based sensors and transmits these data to a data repository (see figure). Data are processed to enable commanders to make timely decisions, take action, and counter threats.

Operational Space Command and Control

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The Air Force's 2020 and 2021 Space C2 annual reports on program status addressed all eight of the required reporting elements outlined in statute, such as a description of changes to program metrics. However, the usefulness of these annual reports for oversight is limited because they lack information needed to provide a more complete picture of the status of the Space C2 program. For example, some short-term priorities for delivering capabilities differ between the two reports, and there is not enough information to determine the reasons for the changes. Given cost, schedule, and performance challenges faced by previous space command and control efforts, program oversight and knowledge-based decision-making would benefit from additional information, such as an explanation of significant changes from one report to the next.

Further, information in the annual reports related to return on investment could be enhanced by documenting user perspectives on the operational benefits associated with program efforts. For example, the 2021 report states that an application that automates radio frequency selection reduced processing time from days to minutes. However, including user perspectives on associated operational benefits of program efforts—such as organizational efficiencies or additional warfighting capabilities—would provide important information for understanding program value, enhance program oversight, and inform future investment decisions.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Department of the Air Force has worked for decades to develop improved space command and control systems. A number of prior efforts experienced significant delays and cost increases. The current Space C2 program began in 2018.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for the Department of the Air Force to submit annual status reports on the Space C2 program and for GAO to review them. This report assesses the extent to which (1) the Department of the Air Force's 2020 and 2021 Space C2 annual reports include and address the key elements that Congress outlined; and (2) the annual reports provide effective information for program oversight.

GAO analyzed NDAA requirements and the 2020 and 2021 annual reports, reviewed agency policies and guidance as well as leading practices related to software development, and interviewed officials from the Departments of Defense and the Air Force, and the U.S. Space Force. GAO also met with congressional staff regarding information for oversight.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that the Air Force include in its annual reports: (1) an explanation of significant changes from the previous report and (2) user perspectives on the operational benefits of program efforts. The Department of Defense agreed with the substance of the recommendations and identified steps to address them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should ensure that the Department of the Air Force include additional contextual information in its annual reports related to significant changes from the previous report, such as the reasons for changes to short-term objectives. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should ensure that, for describing return on investment in future annual reports, the Department of the Air Force include user perspectives on operational benefits of Space C2 program efforts. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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