WASHINGTON – The U.S. Defense Department’s space acquisition programs contain too much development work that is better suited for its science and technology laborato�ries, according to a recent government audit report.
Developing new technology as part of the acquisition process has been a major factor in cost overruns and schedule de�lays on military satellite programs, ac�cording to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of space science and technology work.
The report, “Technology Develop�ment: New [Defense Department] Space Science and Technology Strategy Pro�vides Basis for Optimizing Investments, but Future Versions Need to be More Ro�bust,” lauded the Pentagon for improving its approach to space science and technology, but highlighted a few shortcomings.
The report was called for in the Nation�al Defense Authorization Act for 2004 , and was submitted to the chairmen and rank�ing members of the Senate and House Armed Services committees Jan. 28.
The legislation laid out nine require�ments to govern Pentagon space science and technology work. The GAO study concluded that the Pentagon has met four of those: identifying short- and long-term goals; establishing a process for achieving them; developing that strategy in consultation with the relevant military organizations ; and setting a process for reviewing its space science and technology strategy.
The congressional watchdog agency found that the Pentagon is on its way to meeting the other five: conducting an�nual reviews of the space science and technology strategy; making the strategy available to Capitol Hill; including the review in its National Security Space Plan; sharing the strategy with the rele�vant Pentagon organizations for budget planning purposes; and having Pentagon labs submit their space program budgets and schedules to the director of defense research and engineering as well as the undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force.
But the GAO also identified several problem areas.
Those included difficulty coordinat�ing space science and technology efforts funded by the Air Force, the National Re�connaissance Office, Missile Defense Agency, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other organizations. The report also found that while launch costs have risen, funding available to launch space experiments declined from $62 million in 1990 to $39 million in 2004.
The auditors also found that the Pen�tagon generally invests 80 percent of its research and development funding in ac�quisition programs, with the remaining 20 percent spent in science and technolo�gy labs.
Despite the heavier investment in acquisition-specific research and devel�opment, which is spread over far fewer efforts than in the science and technolo�gy labs , competition for dollars often leads program officials to latch onto im�mature technology that offers the prom�ise of significant performance gains, the report said. When these technologies take longer to perfect than expected, it creates a ripple effect that delays and drives up the cost of entire program , the GAO said.
“Events such as test ‘failures,’ new dis�coveries, and time spent in attaining knowledge are considered normal in this [the laboratory] environment, while they are seen as a negative event in an ac�quisition program,” the report said. “Moreover, separating technology devel�opment and product development en�ables organizations to align customer ex�pectations with resources, and therefore minimize problems that could hurt a program in its design and production phases.”
The Pentagon appears to be making an effort to address this issue for most systems, but space acquisition is covered by a separate policy that allows for signif�icant technology development during acquisition efforts.
The space acquisition policy is under review and officials involved are re-ex�amining how long technology develop�ment should be allowed to continue within an acquisition program, the re�port noted .
Paul Kaminski, a former Pentagon ac�quisition chief, said the Defense Depart�ment might be able to avoid much of the turmoil encountered on nearly all of its satellite efforts by allowing its science and technology labs to perform the ini�tial technology development work .
These laboratories take a slower, steadier pace than is possible in the midst of an acquisition program , Kamin�ski said. Snags are part and parcel of technology development, and during ac�quisition they can put everything on hold, driving up the cost of the program, he said. “We should be preparing for a marathon, not a sprint,” Kaminski said.
James Lewis, director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and In�ternational Studies, a think tank here, said the efficacy of developing technolo�gy during acquisition depends on the program. In some cases, acquisition programs are the best place for innova�tion because of their direct connection to an objective system, he said.
Science and technology labs are the best avenues for finding general solu�tions to problems, like identifying laser-optical links as a method for increasing the speed with which satellites can trans�mit information, Lewis said.
Once a solution like laser-optical links is identified, the development work can be handled within an acquisition effort by program officials with more experi�ence building operational satellites, he said.