GAO backs use of commercial satellites to host military payloads

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“Using hosted payloads may help facilitate a proliferation of payloads on orbit, making it more difficult for an adversary to defeat a capability."

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon should use commercial satellites as host platforms for military sensors and communications packages, says a new Government Accountability Office report released on Monday.

GAO auditors investigated the pros and cons of “hosted payloads” and agreed with what private satellite operators have been saying for years: The military can save money and get capabilities on-orbit faster by hitching rides on commercial satellites. The industry has been building huge spacecraft that have extra carrying capacity, and hosting national security payloads is viewed as a profitable business that also helps the military fill a need.

The report says there are national security benefits to deploying military payloads on commercial satellites. “Using hosted payloads may also help facilitate a proliferation of payloads on orbit, making it more difficult for an adversary to defeat a capability.”

Since 2009, DoD has used three commercially hosted payloads, with three more missions planned or underway through 2022.

In 2011, the Air Force created a Hosted Payload Office to provide expertise and other tools to facilitate matching government payloads with commercial hosts. GAO found that defense programs using hosted payloads are not required and generally do not provide cost and technical data, or lessons learned, to the Hosted Payload Office. Having that information would “better position DoD to make informed decisions when considering acquisition approaches for upcoming space system designs.”

The Pentagon has not been too keen on hosted payloads for several reasons, GAO noted. There is a perception among some defense officials that matching government payloads to commercial satellites is too difficult. Another concern is that DoD’s knowledge on using hosted payloads is “fragmented, in part because programs are not required to share information.”

DoD officials who spoke with GAO identified “logistical challenges to matching government payloads with any given commercial host satellite.” For example, they cited size, weight and power constraints as barriers to using hosted payloads. Some individual DoD offices have realized cost and schedule benefits, but “DoD as a whole has limited information on costs and benefits of hosted payloads,” said the report.

Officials at the Office of the Secretary of Defense told GAO that “matching requirements between government payloads and commercial satellites is typically too difficult for programs to overcome.”

DoD’s Hosted Payload Office is “developing tools designed to help address these challenges,” said the report. Defense officials also argued that budget and planning processes are a hurdle. “This can complicate alignment with commercial timelines because the development of a government sensor would need to be underway well in advance of a decision to fund a commercially hosted payload approach.”

Officials told GAO that it is possible to align government and commercial timelines. For example, the Missile Defense Agency adopted the commercial host’s schedule to ensure its Space Based Kill Assessment payload was ready for integration and launch without delaying the host satellite or missing its ride to space. Similarly, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been able to align acquisition and development schedules with the commercial host.

In its written comments in the report, DoD concurred with GAO’s recommendations and noted that the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center had initiated a major reorganization and that under the new organization, the Hosted Payload Office had changed and may not be the appropriate office for centralizing DoD-wide hosted payload knowledge.

Language in the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act  directs the Pentagon to seize oversight of military investments in hosted payloads.