GAO: Military Satellites, Ground Systems are Being Built Out of Sync

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WASHINGTON — Over half of the major U.S. military space systems now in development will reach orbit well before some or all of their associated ground systems are deployed and fully operational, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded after spending nearly a year reviewing eight major programs.

In a report released Oct. 30, the GAO warned that poor synchronization between space- and ground-segment development promises in at least five cases to lead to satellites that are underutilized for a portion of their operational lives.

“When the deployment of satellites, ground control systems and user terminals is not well synchronized, problems arise that can affect both the warfighter and the space systems themselves,” the GAO wrote. “When capabilities are delayed because of lack of alignment between satellite and ground control systems or user terminals, the warfighter may develop short-term solutions, often at diminished capability and added cost.”

The report, “Challenges in Aligning Space System Components,” was undertaken at the request of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

In examining eight military space systems in development, the GAO found that satellites and their user terminals are often developed by different organizations within the military, a coordination challenge that is partly to blame for some of the synchronization issues. The military also has a tendency to underestimate the cost of space programs. When cost overruns occur in satellite development, money is often taken out of the ground systems, resulting in ground systems that are not ready when the satellites are launched.

The GAO found numerous instances where satellites and ground capabilities are not aligned. For the U.S. Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System, for example, a three-year gap is projected between when the first missile-warning satellite is launched and when the military will have the ground systems necessary to fully exploit its capabilities. The first satellite is scheduled to be launched in 2011, but the ground control software that will process data from its scanning sensor will not be fully functional until at least 2014, the report said.

In the case of the Air Force’s GPS program, user equipment designed to take advantage of enhanced security features on the current generation of satellites began to ship to troops in 2004. But because of development problems with the new Architecture Evolution Plan ground control upgrade, these new features are just now starting to be supported, the report said.

The GAO also found that some U.S. satellite communications systems in development are not in sync with plans to deploy user terminals that allow access from remote locations. For example, the Family of Advanced Beyond-line-of-sight Terminals that are being developed for use with the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite constellation have been hampered by contractor performance problems and cost growth. While the first satellite is expected to be operational in 2011, only 2 percent of the terminals will be fielded by that time, and full deployment will not be complete until 2019.

For the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System, less than 20 percent of user terminals will be deployed when the system’s first satellite is launched in 2011, and all of the terminals are not scheduled to be deployed until 2021, seven years after the space segment reaches full operational capability, the report said.

The GAO made a number of recommendations for better coordination within space programs. It recommended the secretary of defense consider designating one office with overall responsibility for coordinating the different elements of each space system; formulate department-wide guidance for the implementation of a common ground architecture for future satellite development programs; and provide annual documentation to Congress detailing the cost and schedule for each part of each space system in development.

Gil Klinger, the Pentagon’s director of space and intelligence capabilities, concurred or partially concurred with all of the GAO’s recommendations.