Status Report

Alternate Approaches to Space Tracking and Surveillance System Need to Be Considered, GAO-03-597

By SpaceRef Editor
June 4, 2003
Filed under , ,

Full report (PDF)

Why GAO Did This Study:

The Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is developing
a ballistic missile defense system designed to counter a wide spectrum
of ballistic missile threats. A future element of this system is the
Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS). STSS will eventually
be composed of a constellation of satellites that will work together
to detect and track missiles throughout all phases of their flight.
GAO was asked to analyze MDA’s approach to demonstrate capabilities
for STSS.

What GAO Found:

MDA purposely adopted a strategy that would evolve STSS over time
rather than trying to make a big leap in its capability, deferring
some requirements, and calling for competition in the development of
the sensors aboard the satellite. Recent decisions, however, will
limit MDA’s ability to achieve its original goals as well as the
knowledge that could be gained from its satellite demonstrations.

* MDA recently reduced its efforts to sustain competition by
eliminating funds set aside to procure an alternative satellite sensor
from a competing contractor. It now plans to fund only efforts to
design an alternative sensor. If it chooses to pursue STSS as part of
the missile defense system, STSS may end up being more expensive in
the future because MDA could be locked into a single contractor for
the design and production of the large constellation of satellites.

* MDA decided to delay development and launch of new demonstrators in
order to focus on completing development of two legacy satellites.
MDA already knows that it would like to pursue different designs and
different technologies for its target system given that the legacy
satellites do not support a producible design. As a result, delaying
work on the next generation of satellites will delay work that could
offer a better basis from which MDA could build an operational

* MDA’s decision to launch in 2007 lacks important knowledge. MDA has
established a launch date before it has completed its assessment of
the working condition of the equipment it needs to assemble in order
to finish building the two satellites it would like to launch. As a
result, it does not know the extent of work that must be done or how
much it will cost because the number components found to be in working
or non-working order have not yet been identified.

MDA has considered pursuing alternate approaches, but all are
constrained by the need to participate in 2006-2007 missile defense
tests. These approaches include (1) launching the legacy satellites
in 2008 instead of 2007 and (2) stopping work on the legacy satellites
and focusing instead on developing new demonstrators. Both of these
approaches would enable MDA to inject more competition into the STSS
program, reduce scheduling risks, and demonstrate more capabilities.
However, they also have drawbacks; primarily, they would delay MDA’s
ability to make informed trade-offs on missile defense sensors.

What GAO Recommends:

To optimize MDA’s approach to demonstrating space-based missile
tracking capabilities, GAO recommends that MDA focus spending to
assessing what needs to be done to complete work on existing satellite
components so that it has a reasonable basis for its cost and
scheduling estimates. GAO also recommends that MDA assess
alternatives to its current strategy that may offer opportunities to
reduce risks and gain more knowledge. In commenting on a draft of
this report, DOD partially concurred with two of our recommendations
and concurred with two others. In its comments, DOD stated that it
would not be prudent to delay launching satellites given the need to
make overall ballistic missile defense system sensor assessments.

SpaceRef staff editor.