GAO: Defense policy crimps space benefits

Improvements Needed in Space Systems Acquisition Management Policy

The Defense Department's practice of committing to major investments before knowing what resources will be required to deliver the capabilities promised will limit the benefits of its new space acquisition policy, a new General Accounting Office report says.

DOD spends more than $18 billion annually to develop, acquire and operate satellites, GAO found. Auditors looking at the past 20 years' military satellite programs found that most of them experienced delays and cost increases, and some had to be restructured once they were under way.

Current Defense policy, which applies to the department's satellite programs and other space ventures, is designed to get better information on technologies, requirements and costs through several measures, such as independent reviews by experts not connected with the programs in question. Other provisions include a more rigorous analysis of alternatives, independent cost estimates and technology-readiness assessments.

However, the policy does not change DOD's practice of developing systems at the same time it is developing the technology those systems are expected to use. GAO argues that the department should wait until the technology is proven to be ready before committing significant resources to developing systems that will make use of the technology.

"When even one technology does not mature as expected, the entire program can be thrown off course since time and cost for invention cannot be reliably estimated," the report states.

GAO recommended that Defense officials separate technology development from product development. The military should not commit to using a technology until it reaches a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 7, the report recommends. Many agencies and vendors use the TRL system to determine how close a technology is to being proven reliable.

In his written response to GAO, DOD's chief information officer, John Stenbit, disagreed with the recommendations, saying they would slow down space-related acquisitions and prevent the department from taking advantage of the latest technologies.

In rejecting GAO's recommendation that DOD should not commit to using technologies until they reach a TRL of 7, Stenbit wrote: "Forcing every program to meet the same TRL ignores the fact that not only do space programs differ from typical DOD weapons systems, space programs differ from each other."

In addition, the industry examples of "best practices" that GAO cited do not come from space-related industries, so they "do not accurately reflect the unique characteristics of space programs," he wrote.


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