For Fiscal 2008-2013, Cost Overruns Total Some $10.9 Billion For Satellites

The Department of Defense (DOD) has a poor track record in its military satellites development efforts, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told a congressional panel.

“Estimated costs for major space acquisition programs have increased by about $10.9 billion from initial estimates for fiscal years 2008 through 2013,” said Christina Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management. The GAO is a nonpartisan government watchdog agency.

DOD has had to cut back on capabilities initially planned for the birds, and developing technologies has turned out to be far more difficult and time consuming than expected, she told the House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee. DOD made those cutbacks in “quantity and capability in the face of escalating costs,” she said.

Chaplain said these unrelenting problems that persist over years have multiple causes:

  • First, DOD starts more weapon programs than it can afford, creating a competition for funding that encourages, among other things, low cost estimating and optimistic scheduling.
  • Second, DOD has tended to start its space programs before it has the assurance that the capabilities it is pursuing can be achieved within available resources. GAO and others have identified a number of pressures associated with the contractors that develop space systems for the government that have hampered the acquisition process, including ambitious requirements, the impact of industry consolidation, and shortages of technical expertise in the workforce.

The DOD needs to take further steps to correct these longstanding problems, she said.

Rather than total disagreement, her findings drew some support from a senior DOD official, Josh Hartman, senior advisor to the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics — the chief Pentagon systems buyer.

“Past performance in the development of space and intelligence systems has not given us great confidence in meeting our future challenges in a timely or affordable manner,” Hartman said.

The lack of progress in obtaining better military space systems is especially worrisome, because it is unclear how long geriatric defense space systems can last on orbit.

“Today, in multiple mission areas, we rely on systems that have lived long past their design lives,” Hartman noted. “For tomorrow, we hope that systems designed with a Cold War mentality will be successfully delivered and able to meet the threats of the future.”

Generally, the witnesses presented anything but an upbeat picture of Pentagon efforts to procure space wares.

And subcommittee members weren’t pleased.

For example, Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio, ranking Republican on the panel, condemned the widespread nature of the problem, extending through many different military satellite acquisition programs.

“Nearly every single defense space acquisition program is over cost and behind schedule,” he observed. “Our space budget is the highest to date, yet we launch fewer satellites per year than ever before, and we have no inventory of satellites to provide insurance for an already fragile space constellation.”

Many analysts warn that the U.S. military, with more space assets — and more reliance on space assets — than any other nation on the planet, is highly vulnerable to anti- satellite (ASAT) attacks by enemy nations.

China, for example, has proved its ASAT capabilities by using a ground-based interceptor missile to shoot down one of its own aging weather satellites, creating an enormous field of lethal space debris, orbiting hazards that pose an existential threat to working satellites, and to spaceships such as the International Space Station and space shuttle fleet, and to the astronauts and other humans who occupy them.

China also has disabled a U.S. military satellite with a ground-based laser.

Some military analysts say the Pentagon should be moving now to build small, lower-cost satellites that can be launched to orbit quickly, providing quick replacement of existing satellites lost to enemy ASAT shots.

Hartman also spoke of solving the military satellite procurement debacle with program manager empowerment and accountability, formation of configuration steering boards, defense support teams and joint assessment teams, along with prototyping and competition, and principle-base acquisition.

An industry representative — Marion Blakey, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association — called for efforts to produce better results in space acquisitions, including stable budgeting that doesn’t include sudden increases or cuts in multi-year satellite development and launch programs.

“Budget and program stability along with solid cost estimating are the building blocks of world-class acquisition,” she said. “To achieve that goal will require a renewed partnership between the Defense Department, Congress and our industry.”