GAO: USAF’s Space Command and Control Program Needs Better Oversight

The U.S. Air Force’s effort to modernize and consolidate its space command and control systems into a single comprehensive platform has made progress, but it will need comprehensive planning and oversight to succeed, according to a review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“The Space C2 program is facing a number of challenges and unknowns, from management issues to technical complexity,” the report to Congressional committees stated. “Additionally, DOD officials have not yet determined what level of detail is appropriate for acquisition planning documentation for Agile software programs. They are also not certain about the best way to provide oversight of these programs but are considering using assessments by external experts….

“Additionally, software integration and cybersecurity challenges exist, further complicating program development. The Air Force has efforts underway to mitigate some of these challenges in the near term, but until the program develops a comprehensive acquisition strategy to more formally plan the program, it is too early to determine whether these efforts will help to ensure long-term program success,” the report added.

The report noted the Air Force has made some progress in developing new software, but said much more work needs to be done.

“As of mid-2019, the program had delivered some initial capabilities; however, the capabilities delivered so far are not approved for use in operation,” the review found. “Because the program is still early in development, it has not yet established a time frame for certifying these capabilities for operational use.”

A summary of the report and the recommendations follow.

Space Command and Control: Comprehensive Planning and Oversight Could Help DOD Acquire Critical Capabilities and Address Challenges

United States Government Accountability Office
Report to Congressional Committees
October 2019

Full Report

Highlights

Why GAO Did This Study

Since the early 1980s, the Air Force has been working to modernize and consolidate its space command and control systems into a single comprehensive platform. The past three programs to attempt this have ended up significantly behind schedule and over budget. They also left key capabilities undelivered, meeting the easier requirements first and deferring more difficult work to subsequent programs. At the same time, the need for a consolidated space command and control capability has been growing.

The House Armed Services Committee report accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 contained a provision for GAO to review DOD’s newest efforts to develop space command and control capabilities. This report describes the status of these efforts and identifies challenges the Air Force faces in bringing them to fruition.

What GAO Found

To conduct this work, GAO analyzed acquisition and strategy documentation, management directives, and lessons learned; and compared Air Force development plans with leading industry practices for software development, DOD guidelines, and best practices included in a draft GAO guide for assessing Agile software development programs.

Given emerging and evolving threats in the space domain, as well as significant development problems in similar prior efforts, the Air Force is prioritizing the Space Command and Control (C2) program. Early prototype work on the program’s software began in 2016. As of mid-2019, the program had delivered some initial capabilities; however, the capabilities delivered so far are not approved for use in operations. Because the program is still early in development, it has not yet established a time frame for certifying these capabilities for operational use.

Further, the foundational elements of the program, including the infrastructure and software platform, are still being conceptualized. All Space C2 program capabilities will be significantly more automated than past development efforts and are being designed to allow operators to identify and monitor threats to U.S. space assets, identify courses of action to mitigate or eliminate those threats, communicate these actions to decision makers, and direct actions in response.

To develop Space C2’s technologically complex software, the Air Force is following a modernized, iterative process called Agile development—a relatively new approach for Department of Defense (DOD) programs (see figure).

The Space C2 program is facing a number of challenges and unknowns, from management issues to technical complexity. Additionally, DOD officials have not yet determined what level of detail is appropriate for acquisition planning documentation for Agile software programs. They are also not certain about the best way to provide oversight of these programs but are considering using assessments by external experts.

These knowledge gaps run counter to DOD and industry best practices for acquisition and put the program at risk of not meeting mission objectives. Additionally, software integration and cybersecurity challenges exist, further complicating program development. The Air Force has efforts underway to mitigate some of these challenges in the near term, but until the program develops a comprehensive acquisition strategy to more formally plan the program, it is too early to determine whether these efforts will help to ensure long-term program success.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making two recommendations, including that DOD should ensure the Air Force develops a comprehensive acquisition strategy for the Space C2 program. DOD concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

We are making two recommendations to the Department of Defense.

Recommendation 1

The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment should ensure that the Air Force’s finalized Space C2 program’s acquisition strategy includes, at a minimum, the following elements:

  • acquisition and contracting approach;
  • program management structure, including authorities and oversight responsibilities;
  • plans for platform and infrastructure development;
  • requirements management and development approach, and plans for prioritization;
  • risk management plans, including how the program will identify and mitigate risks;
  • metrics for measuring quality of software, and how those results will be shared with external stakeholders;
  • manpower assessment identifying program workforce needs and state of expertise in Agile methods;
  • requirements for reporting program progress to decision makers; and
  • yearly funding levels. (Recommendation 1)

Recommendation 2

The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment should ensure that the Air Force’s Space C2 program conducts periodic independent reviews to assess the program’s approach to developing software and provide, as needed, advice to the program and recommendations for improving the program’s development and progress. Participants could include, but are not limited to, officials from the Defense Innovation Board, the Defense Digital Service, the office of the Air Force Chief Software Advisor, and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment’s Special Assistant for Software Acquisition.

Agency Comments and Our Evaluation

We provided a draft of this product to the Department of Defense for comment. In its comments, reproduced in appendix II, DOD concurred with our recommendations. DOD also provided technical comments, which we incorporated as appropriate.