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Space Acquisitions: Analysis of Two DOD Reports to Congress

GAO-24-106984 Published: Mar 26, 2024. Publicly Released: Mar 26, 2024.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Defense plans to spend billions on space technology, such as satellites, that could help the U.S. Space Force contribute to national security and more.

But in its space acquisitions, DOD has historically struggled with ballooning costs, schedule overruns, and fragmented leadership.

This Q&A report discusses two reports that DOD and the Air Force, which oversees the Space Force, released in 2020 and 2022. The reports included proposals to improve space acquisitions—such as establishing acquisition policies specific to developing space-related technologies. Many of the proposals align with our prior findings and recommendations.

Illustration showing Earth from space surrounded by satellites.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) makes significant investments in space capabilities to meet the nation’s security, economic, and logistical needs. DOD’s space programs—now led by the U.S. Space Force—continue to face many development challenges, which GAO has reported on for several decades.

DOD has made various changes to policies that govern its acquisitions. In one such change in January 2020, DOD reissued its foundational acquisition policy, establishing the Adaptive Acquisition Framework, which emphasizes speed and agility in the acquisition process. In response to statutory mandates, the Department of the Air Force (DAF), under which the Space Force is organized, and DOD each released a report that addressed elements to improve DOD space acquisition programs.

  • In May 2020, the DAF transmitted its report on an alternative acquisition system for the Space Force to congressional committees. The report described nine features of the DAF’s proposed space-specific acquisition system, several of which DOD subsequently implemented.
  • In September 2022, DOD published its final report on applying the Adaptive Acquisition Framework to space systems acquisitions and addressed eight required areas of focus.

A Falcon 9 Rocket Launches a Satellite from the Space Cape Canaveral Space Force Station

A Falcon 9 Rocket Launches a Satellite from the Space Cape Canaveral Space Force Station

Collectively, the acquisition system elements addressed in the reports were aimed at improving the acquisition process for space programs and fell into three categories: acquisitions, budgeting, and requirements.

Summary of Proposed Acquisition System Elements in Department of the Air Force Report and DOD Report, by Category




Milestone decision authority delegation

Separate Space Force budget

Modified joint capabilities integration and development system approach

New start letter notification proposals

Line-Item restructure

List of programs for alternative space acquisition pathways

Codification of efficient space procurement

New space acquisition pathway

Useable end item determination

Space Force Head of Contracting Activity

Legend:  — = not applicable

Source: GAO analysis of Department of the Air Force and Department of Defense (DOD) information. | GAO-24-106984

GAO found that some of the elements discussed in the two reports align with GAO’s prior findings and recommendations, although the DAF and DOD are no longer pursuing other elements. For example, both reports proposed a new space acquisition pathway to help better manage space acquisition efforts. While GAO has not commented specifically on a space pathway under the Adaptive Acquisition Framework, GAO has noted challenges with developing and acquiring space systems. For instance, in GAO-21-520T, GAO noted that specific characteristics of space programs, such as the cost and complexity of space systems, can cause complications in the acquisition process and have posed challenges to DOD, including schedule delays and cost increases, among others. However, according to DOD officials, the department is no longer pursuing such a pathway because it is not needed due to changes in the way DOD is planning to acquire future space capabilities. As DOD develops the Space Force, it has the opportunity to leverage prior GAO recommendations to strengthen Space Force acquisitions.

Why GAO Did This Study

The DAF and DOD each produced a report on space acquisition processes. House Report 116-442 and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 include provisions for GAO to review those reports. GAO assessed how elements included in the DAF and DOD reports align with GAO’s prior work and address identified challenges to acquiring space systems.

To conduct this work, GAO reviewed and analyzed the reports and compared them to its relevant work on leading practices in acquisitions, weapon system acquisitions, and other related topics. GAO reviewed supporting documentation and interviewed DOD officials. GAO also summarized and updated work previously briefed to congressional committees in 2020 and 2021.

For more information, contact Jon Ludwigson at (202) 512-4841 or

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