GAO: DOD’s Responsive Launch Effort Lacks Consolidated Plan

Boeing's ALASA launch system features a F-15E aircraft and an innovative booster. (Credit: Boeing)
Boeing’s ALASA launch system features a F-15E aircraft and an innovative booster. (Credit: Boeing)

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) study has found the Defense Department lacks a consolidated plan for developing a responsive launch capability that could rapidly place satellites into orbit on short notice.

“DOD attributes this omission to a lack of requirements for responsive launch, noting that no existing space program has them,” the report states. “DOD officials told us that such requirements are premature without a validated need for responsive launch.

“Officials from the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) added that responsive launch needs cannot be well defined at this time due to uncertainties in the threat environment, and stated that DOD will validate future responsive launch requirements once it acquires new information from intelligence and defense studies presently underway,” the study added.

The DOD is pursuing multiple programs designed to provide rapid launch capabilities, including Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA), XS-1 and Super Strypi.  Defense officials say the programs are not duplicative. None of them programs has flown successfully. The first Super Strypi launch attempt failed earlier this week; the other two programs are still under development.

GAO was charged with reviewing the DOD Responsive Launch Report that was issued in June 2015. The oversight office made no recommendations in its assessment.

Read the full report. The executive summary of the GAO review follows.

Space Acquisitions:
GAO Assessment of DOD Responsive Launch Report

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense’s (DOD) June 2015 report generally addresses four of the five elements called for in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2014 (Pub. L. No. 113-66, 915 (2013)), including descriptions of

  • existing and past operationally responsive launch efforts (“responsive launch” refers to the ability to launch space assets to their intended orbits as the need arises), in addition to some criteria for considering launch costs;
  •  existing launch requirements and the need for validated requirements for responsive launch;
  • various government and commercial efforts to develop an operationally responsive, low-cost launch capability; and
  • innovative methods that could contribute to launch responsiveness.

DOD’s report does not, however, include a consolidated plan for developing a responsive launch capability. DOD attributes this omission to a lack of requirements for responsive launch, noting that no existing space program has them. DOD officials told us that such requirements are premature without a validated need for responsive launch. Officials from the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) added that responsive launch needs cannot be well defined at this time due to uncertainties in the threat environment, and stated that DOD will validate future responsive launch requirements once it acquires new information from intelligence and defense studies presently underway. In lieu of a consolidated plan, the DOD report calls for reassessments of responsive launch needs and national security space program architectures, to help clarify requirements, and to take advantage of emerging responsive launch options. DOD’s June 2015 report also outlines numerous efforts within the department to develop or demonstrate a capability for responsive launch. DOD officials told us that these concurrent programs were not duplicative, however, as the offices were pursuing different objectives.

DOD and contractor officials we spoke with highlighted several potential challenges DOD faces as it pursues operationally responsive launch capabilities. For example, DOD officials told us that existing national security space program architectures (including payloads, ground systems, user equipment, and launch systems) may need to be modified to improve responsiveness, which could present challenges. Also, DOD currently lack requirements for responsive launch, but plans to validate future responsive launch requirements as it gains knowledge about emerging threats. Once DOD defines its responsive launch needs and validates future requirements, having a single focal point for prioritizing and developing its responsive launch capabilities will be important.

Why GAO Did This Study

The NDAA for fiscal year 2014 included a provision for GAO to provide an assessment of DOD’s responsive launch report within 60 days of issuance. The NDAA for fiscal year 2014 directed the DOD Executive Agent for Space (EA for Space) to provide in its report, a study of

  1. existing and past operationally responsive, low-cost launch efforts by domestic or foreign governments or industry;
  2. conditions or requirements for responsive launch that would provide the necessary military value;
  3. various methods to develop an operationally responsive, low-cost launch capability; and
  4. viability of greater utilization of innovative methods.

Additionally, the NDAA for fiscal year 2014 directed the EA for Space to provide a consolidated plan for developing an operationally responsive, low-cost launch capability within DOD. The EA for Space office reported the results of its study to the congressional defense committees in June 2015. Our report discusses: (1) the extent to which DOD’s report addresses the information called for in the NDAA for fiscal year 2014, and (2) the challenges, if any, DOD may face as it pursues a responsive launch capability.

To assess the extent to which DOD’s report addresses the information called for in the NDAA for fiscal year 2014, we reviewed the report and compared it to information called for in the NDAA for fiscal year 2014, and discussed the data and approach used to develop the report and its findings with DOD officials. To identify any challenges DOD may face as it pursues responsive launch options, we interviewed DOD officials and contractor personnel, and reviewed responsive space requirements and programmatic and policy documents.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is not making any recommendations in this report.