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Defense's space program weighed down by delays and cost overruns

Mismanagement has led to delays and multibillion-dollar cost overruns in the Defense Department's space program, according to a report the Government Accountability Office released on Tuesday.

Defense plans to spend more than $50 billion to develop eight space systems that will provide communications, global positioning, weather data and missile warning information, GAO reported. The systems consist of two main components: satellites and ground control systems, which often include a third component called user terminals that troops use to access the space systems from the battlefield.

GAO said the programs have been delayed as long as seven years and costs are estimated to increase $11 billion from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2013. The buildout of ground systems lags the development of the satellites because Defense has diverted funding from the ground systems program to the satellites to cover funding shortages.

"This means that mission-capable satellites may be in orbit for months or years, but warfighters and others would be unable to use the full complement of the satellites' capabilities," the report stated.

Defense also has not properly aligned the delivery of the ground control systems with the satellites, compromising the systems' performance. In many cases, the gap between the rollout of capabilities in space and on the ground is several years. For six of the eight systems, Defense has not aligned delivery of the ground control systems with the satellites. Additionally, three of the ground control systems are not aligned to deliver their functionality and none of the five systems requiring user terminals was aligned properly.

"When space system acquisitions are not aligned, satellite capability is available but underutilized, though in some cases, workaround efforts can help compensate for the loss or delay of capability," GAO said. "Moreover, when ground systems, user terminals, or both are not aligned with satellites, there are significant limitations in the extent to which the system as a whole can be independently tested and verified."

The report acknowledges several factors that make aligning satellites with ground control systems difficult, including the complexity of the systems. Some systems require only one ground console, while others need tens of thousands of terminals that must be maintained on ships, planes and vehicles. Another complication is the two years it takes to schedule satellite launches, which makes it difficult to hold back deployment even if the ground console or user terminal is delayed.

GAO recommends Defense improve coordination among the stakeholders involved with the space program and develop more transparency regarding the program's complexity, cost and the consequences of delays. Defense concurred with GAO's recommendations and is working to address the acquisition challenges.

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