Status Report

Military Space Operations: Common Problems and Their Effects on Satellite and Related Acquisitions, GAO-03-825R

By SpaceRef Editor
June 4, 2003
Filed under , ,

Full Report (PDF)

June 2, 2003
The Honorable Jerry Lewis
Chairman, Subcommittee on Defense
Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives
Subject: Military Space Operations: Common Problems and Their Effects on Satellite and Related Acquisitions

Dear Mr. Chairman:

In fiscal year 2003, the Department of Defense expects to spend more than $18 billion
to develop, acquire, and operate satellites and other space-related systems. Satellite
systems collect information on the capabilities and intentions of potential
adversaries. They enable military forces to be warned of a missile attack and to
communicate and navigate while avoiding hostile action. And they provide
information that allows forces to precisely attack targets in ways that minimize
collateral damage and loss of life. DOD’s satellites also enable global
communications, television broadcasts, weather forecasting; navigation of ships,
planes, trucks, and cars; and synchronization of computers, communications, and
electric power grids.

You requested that we review reports we issued on satellite and other space-related
programs over the past two decades and identify common problems affecting these
programs. In addition to analyzing past reports, we interviewed Air Force space
acquisition officials and reviewed past DOD studies as well as DOD’s selected
acquisition reports to the Congress. As agreed with your office, given the short
timeframe of this assignment, we did not thoroughly assess underlying causes of
problems identified or the effectiveness of actions being taken to address these
problems. However, we plan to do so as part of a follow-on study. To the extent
possible, we looked at the current status of programs we reviewed. However,
because we principally relied on past GAO and DOD reports, some recent changes in
status and cost may not be reflected. We conducted our review from April 2003
through May 2003 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing


The majority of satellite programs cost more than expected and took longer to
develop and launch than planned. In reviewing our past reports, we found that these
results were commonly tied to the following problems.

(1) Requirements for what the satellite needed to do and how well it must perform
were not adequately defined at the beginning of a program or were changed
significantly once the program had already begun.

(2) Investment practices were weak. For example, potentially more cost-effective
approaches were not examined and cost estimates were optimistic.

(3) Acquisition strategies were poorly executed. For example, competition was
reduced for the sake of schedule or DOD did not adequately oversee contractors.

(4) Technologies were not mature enough to be included in product development.
Several factors contributed to these problems. First, DOD often took a scheduledriven
instead of a knowledge-driven approach to the acquisition process. As a
result, activities essential to containing costs, maximizing competition among
contractors and testing technologies were compressed or not done. Second, there is
a diverse array of organizations with competing interests involved in overall satellite
development—from the individual military services, to testing organizations,
contractors, civilian agencies, and in some cases international partners. This created
challenges in making tough tradeoff decisions, particularly since, for many years,
there was no high-level official within the Office of the Secretary of Defense
dedicated to developing and enforcing an overall investment strategy for space.
Third, space acquisition programs have historically attempted to satisfy all
requirements in a single step, regardless of the design challenge or the maturity of
technologies to achieve the full capability. This approach made it difficult to match
requirements to available resources (in terms of time, money, and technology).

Other factors also created challenges for the satellite acquisition programs we
reviewed. These include a shrinking industrial base, a declining space workforce,
difficulties associated with testing satellites in a realistic environment, as well as
challenges associated with launching satellites.

DOD has studied problems affecting its satellite acquisitions and is undertaking
efforts to address these problems. We plan to evaluate these efforts in a subsequent
review. Therefore, we are not making recommendations in this report.

SpaceRef staff editor.