Pentagon urged to develop investment plan for space acquisitions

The Defense Department has made progress in bolstering its small-scale procurement program for space capabilities, but the department should develop a full investment plan to strengthen the initiative, the Government Accountability Office has recommended.

In its study (GAO-08-516), GAO analyzed the Defense Department's "operationally responsive space" initiative, which is designed to quickly fill capability gaps with low-cost satellites. Despite significant investments in space systems, senior military commanders have detailed shortfalls in each major conflict over the past decade.

Since GAO last assessed ORS in 2006, the department has strengthened its ability to manage the initiative by creating the Joint ORS Office. Defense has filled eight of the office's anticipated 20 positions and has clearly laid out its responsibilities, GAO reported.

While acknowledging progress, the report warned of significant challenges ahead for the small office. With a budget of $646 million for fiscal 2008 through 2013 and limited staffing, the ORS office will be expected to be responsive and dynamic in a procurement area known for cost and schedule overruns.

"With relatively modest resources, the Joint ORS Office must quickly respond to the warfighter's urgent needs while continuing research and development efforts that are necessary to help reduce the cost and time of future space acquisitions," wrote Cristina Chaplain, GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management. "Historically, it has been difficult to transition programs from the science and technology environment to the acquisition and operational environment."

To be successful in its acquisitions, the office must coordinate with a wide range of other programs and agencies, GAO reported. An investment plan, the report concluded, will be important to ensuring this cooperation at all stages of acquisition.

While the department has developed an ORS strategy to identify necessary investments, GAO noted that it lacks a formal plan to identify how to achieve needed capabilities, prioritize funding and establish mechanisms of enforcement.

GAO recommended that the investment plan be developed by the secretary of the Air Force in his role as executive agent for space, and be approved by relevant stakeholders. The Defense Department agreed with the recommendation. The report noted that the ORS initiative is a "considerable departure" from the traditional Defense approach to space acquisitions.

Defense's "space portfolio has been dominated by larger space system acquisitions, which have taken longer, cost more, and delivered fewer quantities and capabilities than planned," the report said. "Unlike traditional large satellite programs, the ORS initiative is intended to address only a small number of unmet tactical needs -- one or two -- with each delivery of capabilities."

As the department moves forward with critical space acquisitions of all sizes, ORS must be prepared to "execute a range of efforts within relatively modest resources and amid competing demands and pressure to produce quick results," GAO reported.

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