GAO raps DOD satellite operations

map of dod satellite antennas

Map showing the locations of DOD's satellite control centers. (GAO image)

The Department of Defense manages the nation's defense satellites worth a collective $13.7 billion, but the ground stations and control networks that operate them need to be modernized significantly, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

The report states DOD's satellite control networks are "fragmented and potentially duplicative," and states that the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN), DOD's largest shared satellite control network, is undergoing $400 million in modernization efforts over five years that won't actually increase the network's capabilities. The network's antennas are spread around the world.

This isn't the first time GAO has reported critically on DOD's satellite control systems – reports on the matter date back to 1994 – but GAO officials told FCW that in light of budgetary issues experienced across government, it makes sense for DOD to consider modernizing.

Read the report.

"Given the budgetary situation, we do believe it's time for DOD to take satellite control more seriously, and to really put an effort into modernizing their efforts, bringing them up to current practices and software," said Cristina Chaplain, director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management for GAO.

The GAO report makes two specific recommendations, both of which DOD officials agreed with in the report. The first recommends the Secretary of Defense conduct an analysis at the beginning of new satellite acquisition project to determine a business case for either a shared or dedicated satellite control operations network. The report cites one unnamed Air Force base that has 10 satellite programs operated by 8 separate control centers, creating the potential for significant duplicity, something the report suggests wouldn't happen in the commercial sector.

"Commercial practices have the potential to increase the efficiency and decrease costs of DOD satellite control operations," the report states. "These practices include: interoperability between satellite control operations networks; automation of routine satellite control operations functions; use of commercial off-the-shelf products instead of custom ones; and a hybrid network approach which allows a satellite operator to augment its network through another operator's complementary network."

The second recommendation from GAO directs DOD to develop a department-wide long-term plan for modernizing AFSCN and any future shared satellite control operations network. A sufficient plan would identify estimated satellite control costs, program manager authorities required to ensure ground systems are built how the business case says they should be, and which commercial practices, if any, can improve how DOD manages it satellites control operations.

"Right now, the business case is all about the satellite program, not the other supportive pieces, and there's no long-term plan that says it's time to get modernized and be more integrated," Chaplain said.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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Reader comments

Wed, Apr 24, 2013

Why isn't this common-serviced DoD wide?

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