Editorial: The U.S. Defense Department’s Space Alignment Problem

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A recent report citing a number of U.S. military satellite programs where the space and ground segments are out of schedule sync highlights the fact that getting a complex spacecraft built and into orbit — no small challenge in itself — is only half the battle. After all, a satellite is only as good as its ground-based control and utilization infrastructure.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined eight programs in all and found schedule alignment issues with six. On three programs, the satellites are slated to launch before their ground-control segments are fully operational, the GAO found. Aligning deployment schedules of satellites and user terminals turns out to be even more difficult: All five programs that feature user terminals were out of sync, according to the report, which was released in October.

When satellites are launched before their ground infrastructure is ready, the result is wasted capability on orbit, inadequate full-system testing and the development of short-term fixes that increase costs while offering diminished capability. Among the examples cited by the GAO are the long-troubled Space Based Infrared System missile warning program, where there appears to be a four-year gap between the launch of the first satellite and the ability to exploit its full potential; and the Mobile User Objective System, a constellation of communications craft whose user terminals are not expected to be fully deployed until seven years after the complete space segment is up and operating.

The synchronization problem, of course, is nothing new: As the GAO noted, it was cited in a January 2001 landmark report by an expert panel led by Donald Rumsfeld, who went on to become U.S. secretary of defense. The Space Commission report served as a blueprint for restructuring U.S. national security space management, but many, if not most, of the problems it was intended to address persist today.

Perhaps top among them are the well-documented space acquisition woes driven by factors including runaway requirements growth, poor contractor oversight, inadequate systems engineering, reliance on immature technology, funding instability and overly ambitious cost and schedule targets. The space-ground synchronization issue is in large part a symptom of this problem: One has to be able to reliably predict schedules in order to align them.

The GAO noted other causes, including the fact that satellites and their user terminals often are developed by different Pentagon acquisition organizations. In the case of satellites and ground-control systems, which typically are developed by the same organization, there is a tendency to move money from the ground to the space segment when development issues arise.

The GAO suggested several remedial measures, including: establishing a minimum expected level of synchronization between satellites and ground systems; giving Congress better insight into the costs and performance of satellite programs; moving toward a common ground architecture for different satellite systems; and designating a single office to oversee the relative progress on space systems and their associated ground infrastructure. The Defense Department fully concurred with all the recommendations save one having to do with optimizing component testing, which it argued could delay delivery of important capabilities to the battlefield.

To the extent that the GAO’s recommendations are implemented — the Defense Department said some already have been at least partially adopted — they could provide some measure of relief. In particular, more transparency when it comes to the cost performance of space programs is always desirable, notwithstanding the Pentagon’s questionable claim that it already gives Congress all the insight it needs to oversee military spending programs.

But while the GAO can be commended for bringing renewed attention to a longstanding problem, its remedies are likely to produce change only at the margins. The primary culprit is still the U.S. government’s inability to predict how long it will take and what it will cost to field increasingly complex systems, be they satellites or anything else. Until the government finally manages to wrestle this problem to the ground, the lack of synchronization between satellites and ground infrastructure will continue to be an issue, albeit a small one by comparison.