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Space Acquisitions: Changing Environment presents Continuing Challenges and Opportunities to DOD
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Space Acquisitions: Changing Environment presents Continuing Challenges and Opportunities to DOD

What the GAO Found

Space-based capabilities—such as GPS—are fundamental to U.S. defense, national security, and civilian activities. GAO reported that the Department of Defense has had long-standing problems in acquiring space systems to support these capabilities. This has resulted in significant cost increases and delays. DOD created more flexible acquisition paths to speed up the acquisition process, including the middle tier. This pathway comes with trade-offs in monitoring, reporting, and oversight. GAO found that DOD did not have an overarching data collection strategy and reporting strategy for the middle tier of its acquisition pathway in 2021. This limited DOD’s visibility into programs and affected its congressional reporting. DOD has taken several steps to improve its systems and processes for reporting acquisition data to Congress, and other stakeholders.

GAO has made numerous recommendations and issued reports on programs under this pathway. GAO reported in September 2021 the program had taken steps to speed development, but identified difficulties that would make its aggressive schedule challenging. GAO found that the program hadn’t acknowledged these risks in its reports to Congress. GAO recommended that DOD improve schedule and cost transparency in order for Congress to make better decisions.

The new acquisition process, the establishment of the Space Force, growth of the commercial aerospace industry, and evolving threats to the space domain all present opportunities and challenges for space acquisition efforts.

  • Although DOD has reported that they are making progress in establishing the Space Force it remains to see if this organizational change can address GAO’s 2016 concern about fragmented space acquisition leadership.
  • According to DOD, a new network of private companies that offer capabilities such as satellite monitoring and space launch could pose challenges for monitoring space objects. However, DOD could contract data or services to meet its needs.
  • Space was for decades a low-threat environment. However, DOD acknowledged that space is still a potential threat environment. Today, potential adversaries continue developing offensive space capabilities, including weapons designed to target U.S. or allied capabilities.

GAO is currently reviewing several key topics, including DOD’s efforts in tailoring the acquisition process, leveraging commercial capabilities, and addressing new threats.

This Study was conducted by GAO

Space systems provided by the DOD are critical to support national security and military operations. These systems are costly to acquire and cost billions of dollars annually to field. The U.S. Space Force, which was recently established, will consolidate leadership, planning and management for select DOD space programs as appropriate and authorized.

This statement (1) gives a description of key space systems development efforts and summarizes GAO’s recent related results. (2) addresses the challenges, opportunities, and risks that may arise in the acquisition of new space systems. This statement is based upon GAO reports on DOD space programs that were issued since 2020. It also draws upon work supporting GAO’s annual report on major defense acquisition program and other reports on acquisition Reforms.

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