Credit: Government Accountability Office

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon remains sluggish in fielding innovative weapon systems even as security risks intensify, the Government Accountability Office said in its annual assessment of major arms programs released June 17

The congressional watchdog’s report examined 70 major weapon systems across the military services. GAO flags several hiccups in Space Force programs, including long-standing issues with the Global Positioning System’s ground control system and user equipment. It also cites supply chain challenges and technical risks for the Space Development Agency’s planned constellation of satellites in low-Earth orbit. 

Next-gen GPS ground system

The Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) is a GPS ground control system that has been in development for decades. The report warned that further delays in OCX could impact the rollout of new GPS satellites. Specifically, the launch and operation of the next-generation GPS IIIF satellites depends on delivering OCX’s future Block 3F capability on time. 

GPS user equipment

A program to build GPS receivers for handheld devices and munitions — known as Military GPS User Equipment (MGUE) Increment 2 — is developing satellite receivers compatible with more secure military signals.

GAO estimated that the program will not complete its prototyping effort within the five-year time frame set by DoD. It attributed the potential for further delays, in part, to vendor staffing levels, ongoing delays in chip development, and program office delays in providing information to support vendor tests. A Defense Contract Management Agency review predicted the program won’t complete prototyping within the Pentagon’s five-year deadline due to issues like staffing shortfalls.

Proliferated LEO satellites

The report examined the Space Development Agency’s planned constellation of missile-tracking satellites. GAO said SDA is evaluating risks around the supply chain, the availability of subcontractors and ensuring interoperability between multiple vendors’ optical communications terminals.

SDA developed an optical communication terminal standard for satellite vendors in order to enable interoperability. However, officials told GAO that SDA’s optical terminal standard is different from commercial standards, and vendors have different interpretations. As a result, Tranche 1 Tracking Layer data initially may have to be processed on the ground and relayed back to space, adding delays.

For the Transport Layer providing data communications, the SDA has struggled to hire software engineers and other specialists needed to keep the program on track amid competition for talent in the space sector, the GAO found. 

Bigger Picture: ‘Alarmingly’ slow modernization 

Overall, the report paints a troubling picture of the Pentagon’s ability to rapidly field cutting-edge tech.

“DoD remains alarmingly slow in delivering new and innovative weapon system capabilities, even as national security threats continue to evolve,” the GAO said, warning that threats like China’s military modernization and adversaries’ AI capabilities demand a swifter approach.

“The number of threats in space also continues to grow, including adversarial development of ways to target U.S. space assets and communications,” the GAO said, adding that China is modernizing to challenge American military superiority. “Rapid advancements in technology and innovation are shared worldwide, and other threats will continue to emerge,” said the report. Meanwhile, “the speed of technological change outpaces the responsiveness of the current acquisition structure.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...