Commercial practices have the potential to increase the efficiency and decrease the costs of Defense Department satellite control operations, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday.

DoD manages the nation’s defense satellites via ground stations located around the world. These stations and supporting infrastructure support three primary functions: monitoring the health of the satellite; ensuring it stays in proper orbit (activities collectively known as satellite control operations) and planning, monitoring and controlling the execution of the overall mission of the satellite. GAO estimated the cost of the nation’s defense satellites at $13.7 billion.

Over the past decade, DoD has increasingly deployed standalone satellite control operations networks, which are designed to operate a single satellite system as opposed to shared systems that can operate multiple kinds of satellites. Dedicated networks can offer many benefits to programs. However, they can also be more costly and have led to a fragmented, and possibly duplicated, approach which requires more infrastructure and personnel than shared operations.

GAO said DoD continues to acquire standalone networks and has not worked to move its current standalone operations toward a shared satellite control network, which could better leverage department investments.

Commercial practices could increase the efficiency and decrease costs of Pentagon satellite control operations, GAO said. These practices include: interoperability between satellite control operations networks; automation of routine satellite control operations functions; use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products instead of custom ones and a hybrid network approach that allows a satellite operator to augment its network through another operator’s complementary network.

Despite the potential of commercial practices, GAO said DoD faces four barriers that complicate its ability to make improvements to its satellite networks and adopt such practices: DoD has no long-term plan for satellite control operations; it lacks reliable data on the costs of its current control networks and is unable to isolate satellite control costs from other expenses; there is no requirement for satellite programs to establish a business case for their chosen satellite control operations approach and even if program managers wanted to make satellite control operations improvements, they lack the autonomy to implement changes at the program level.

GAO said the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN), which is DoD’s primary shared satellite control network, is undergoing modernization efforts, but these will not increase the network’s capabilities. The Air Force budgeted about $400 million over the next five years for these efforts, but they primarily focus on sustaining the network at its current level of capability and do not apply a decade of research recommending more significant improvements to the AFSCN that would increase its capabilities.