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Research Questions

  1. How did past Department of Defense (DoD) space programs perform?
  2. What factors contributed to the difficulties in past DoD space acquisition programs?
  3. How can current DoD space programs be characterized?
  4. What future acquisition challenges might the next-generation space systems face?

Acquiring and deploying space systems in a timely, affordable manner is important to U.S. national security but for years, Department of Defense (DoD) space programs have experienced large cost growth, schedule delays, and technical problems. Although these issues have been mostly resolved, DoD should apply lessons learned from past experience as it plans for the next-generation space systems, especially in the current fiscal environment. The authors analyze the performance of selected DoD space programs in terms of cost growth, schedule delays, and on-orbit performance over the course of their program histories spanning from 1996 to 2012; identify key factors that contributed to cost growth, schedule overruns, and technical problems; characterize the current status of these programs; and identify future acquisition challenges that next-generation space systems might face.

Key Findings

Four of Five Space Programs Examined Experienced Major Cost Growth and Schedule Delays

  • The Space-Based Infrared, Global Positioning System IIF, Advanced Extremely High Frequency, and Wideband Global SATCOM programs experienced major cost growth and schedule delays arising from difficulties in technology development, engineering, manufacturing, and integration. Parts quality and obsolescence issues also led to costly redesign, rework, and additional testing.

The Programs Had Used a High-Risk Acquisition Approach That Contributed to Program Difficulties and Inefficiencies

  • High requirements risks involved midstream changes in requirements and complex and ambitious requirements arising from multiple missions of equal priority on a single platform.
  • High technical risks involved the introduction of immature technologies, inadequate testing and systems engineering, and overoptimistic assumptions about the applicability of commercial practices to military space systems.
  • High programmatic risks involved accelerating program schedules, changes in procurement quantities, and inefficient buying practices.

The External Environment Fostered the High-Risk Acquisition Approach

  • Changes in the U.S. national security strategy and defense policy in the 1990s led to a significant reduction in the defense budget, new requirements for increased tactical support from space programs, and acquisition reform that focused on cost and commercial practices.
  • These policy and strategy changes were implemented by introducing high risks into the programs without fully understanding the potential consequences.

Many Enterprise-Level Systemic Issues Contributed to the Adverse Outcome of the Programs

  • Long development cycles, lack of synchronization between all the segments in the space enterprise, and poor constellation planning contributed to acquisition inefficiencies.
  • The failure-intolerant risk posture combined with the goal of optimizing each satellite's utility allowed very little room to deal with unanticipated problems.

Progress Has Been Made in Recent Years but Acquisition of Next-Generation Space Systems Faces a Risk of Repeating the High-Risk Acquisition Approach

  • The programs' costs and schedules have been under better control in recent years as they entered the production phase and cost-saving initiatives were implemented.
  • Severe budget cuts and requirements for increased resilience are adding pressure and complexity for future space acquisition, which may re-introduce a high-risk acquisition approach if the lessons learned from past acquisition experience are not adequately applied.

This report was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Performance Assessments and Root Cause Analysis (PARCA) office and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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