GAO Worries DOD Disaggregation Decisions May Be Poorly Informed

GAO Worries DOD Disaggregation Decisions May Be Poorly Informed

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) talked to many experts and reviewed a host of reports on DOD’s plans for disaggregation of some of its satellite systems.  In the end, GAO concluded that little is known about the pros and cons of using that acquisition approach for future space systems and warned that “poorly informed decisions could made” by DOD.

GAO was directed to conduct its review by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in the report accompanying the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act.  The committee particularly asked GAO to assess “the potential benefits and drawbacks of disaggregating key military space systems and examine if disaggregation offers decreased acquisition and lifecycle costs and increased survivability of a satellite constellation compared to more traditional acquisition approaches.”

Disaggregation has become a popular, if not well understood, term for launching many smaller satellites instead of a few large ones to accomplish a given mission such as early warning, weather, or communication.  GAO describes it as “breaking up” large satellites into multiple smaller ones.  The idea is that smaller satellites may be less costly to develop, produce and launch than large, complex satellites, and that space systems as a whole might be less vulnerable (and therefore more resilient) if there were more targets that had to be neutralized to degrade system performance significantly.  Hosted payloads are an example of disaggregation where a user such as DOD puts a sensor or other payload on another entity’s satellite so that it does not have to pay for the entire satellite.  CHIRP (Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload) is one example of DOD utilizing the hosted payload concept where it tested a new infrared sensor as a payload on a commercial communications satellite owned by SES.  Although widely considered a success, DOD discontinued CHIRP in 2013 because of budget constraints.

SASC specifically asked GAO to look at capabilities provided by three satellite systems:  Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellites; Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) for missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness; and Weather System Follow-on (WSF), a successor to the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP).

GAO said, however, that there are so many unknowns, it could not make a definitive assessment at this time.  Therefore it limited the report to describing the potential benefits and limitations and to assessing whether DOD has enough knowledge to make informed decisions today about whether to use disaggregation for acquiring new space systems.

GAO’s answer to the latter question is no.  Although DOD and other organizations have conducted many studies, and DOD has Analysis of Alternatives (AOAs) underway, they are insufficient to support good decision-making, the report concluded.  GAO found that  “… the intent of the AOAs is not to examine the merits of disaggregation on its own, but rather as one of the many options that may or may not provide solutions.  The additional studies beyond the AOAs have been useful in providing results to inform the ongoing AOAs, officials told us, though some have been regarded as inconclusive because they were not conducted with sufficient analytical rigor or did not consider the capabilities, risks, and trades in a holistic manner.”  In addition, DOD “lacks common measures for resilience that can be used consistently in AOAs…” even though “DOD leaders have emphasized resilience as a priority when considering future systems,” and demonstration projects like CHIRP provide technological insight and lessons learned, but do not focus on operational feasibility.

As for the potential benefits and drawbacks, GAO provided many examples of both, but its ultimate conclusion was that not enough is known today:  “Without a determined and disciplined effort to develop information about the full range of disaggregation issues — including operations — decisions on future space capabilities could be under-informed and opportunities missed.”

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