The U.S. Air Force has started more space programs than it can afford, setting itself up for disruptive funding cuts and schedule delays, according to a government audit delivered to Congress June 23.

In a report titled “Defense Acquisitions: Incentives and Pressures that Drive Problems Affecting Satellite and Related Acquisitions,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that space acquisition programs lack an overall coherent investment strategy, with programs frequently started before a “sound business case” has been established.

Other problems identified with U.S. military space acquisition programs include: too much investment in new communications and reconnaissance capabilities shortly after Sept. 11; a tendency within the Pentagon to cut small amounts of funding from all space programs, rather than canceling or dramatically cutting back on just a few, when faced with tight budgets ; trying to make too many technological leaps on new programs ; and suppressing bad news or avoiding tests that could reveal problems with a program out of the need to continually sell the system.

The GAO noted that many of these same issues affect other Pentagon weapon systems as well.

Linton Wells, the Pentagon’s acting assistant secretary of defense for networks and information integration, said in a June 6 letter included with the report that revisions to the Air Force’s space acquisition policy adopted in December 2004 may ultimately address some of the GAO’s concerns. But it will be difficult to judge the effect of the new policy until programs have more time to progress under it, Wells wrote .

Other problems identified in the report include an inadequate Air Force workforce to handle space acquisition programs. Air Force program officials often lack the knowledge and experience to understand the details of bid proposals and stand up to contractors when work is poorly managed, according to the report.

The report also said industry consolidation has resulted in situations where only one company can develop a satellite component, allowing contractors to “hold some programs hostage.”