Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

<i>Program Management</i>

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Nancy W. Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

Even with optimistic assumptions about future funding levels and the cost of acquiring new space capabilities, the AFSPC has acknowledged that “to acquire all the capabilities for which AFSPC is responsible in the timeframes desired by the warfighter” would be impossible.157 The Strategic Master Plan includes a chart (reproduced in Figure 4) that contrasted AFSPC’s assumptions about its total obligation authority (TOA) through 2030 (the black line) with the estimated costs of acquiring new capabilities by mission area. The AFSPC analysis shows a modest gap between resources and anticipated costs in the Future Years Defense Plan, then a budget shortfall approaching 50 percent as desired systems move into the more expensive stages of research, development, and procurement. AFSPC tersely notes that the current plan is “unexecutable.” While this type of language is commonly used as a tactic to increase resources in budget battles, if it accurately represents or understates the magnitude of the problem and more resources are not likely to be provided, then the plan is unlikely to achieve its stated purposes.

Figure 4: Mismatch between SPACECOM plans and resources

Figure 4

Source: AFSPC, Strategic Master Plan FY06 and Beyond, p. 13. The black line shows that AFSPC had about $12 billion in Total Obligation Authority (TOA) for FY2006. Projected TOA through FY2009 reflects the Future Years Defense Plan submitted with the Bush administration’s FY2006 request and thereafter assumes three percent real growth in TOA. SFE = Space Force Enhancement, CS = Counterspace, SFA = Space Force Application, SS = Space Support, and MS = Mission Support.

The Strategic Master Plan proposes to worry about the projected funding shortfall later; it recommends relaxing some TOA constraints (i.e., continuing to pursue more development projects than could be completed without future TOA growing faster than 3 percent per year) and postponing the start of significant work on Operationally Responsive Space Launch until 2020. Given the high costs of the war in Iraq and other ongoing military operations, as well as mounting concerns about the U.S. federal budget deficit, to assume that the rate of spending on military space acquisition will grow even faster than currently projected is unrealistic.

Proponents of the SPACECOM VISION believe that the United States should spend whatever it takes to acquire unique capabilities that could confer significant military advantages. Yet, recent experience shows that the AFSPC analysis significantly underestimates the long-term cost of acquiring its desired capabilities. The head of Boeing’s defense unit has publicly complained that schedule and cost projections used in SPACECOM plans were “unrealistic” and “assumed everything was going to work the first time.”158 The space acquisition process has not become “faster, better, cheaper,” as NASA administrator Daniel Goldin promised more generally in the late 1990s. Instead, by reducing the number of civil servants with space acquisition expertise and relying more on contractors, the U.S. government lost much of its professional capability to assess space acquisition proposals just as the SPACECOM program moved into high gear. The result is a situation where the cost growth associated with current major space acquisition projects has generally been between 50 and 100 percent from the time of contract initiation.159 That suggests that even if U.S. spending on military space capabilities remains vastly greater than everyone else’s, achievement of its stated aspirations is doubtful because it will not be able to acquire all the necessary capabilities.

Like the SBIRS program, a number of major space acquisition programs fit a pattern in which DOD’s rush to develop complex new weapons systems based on immature technology and inadequate knowledge has led to major cost overruns, quantity reductions, per unit cost increases, and performance shortfalls.160 Contrary to predictions that advanced information technology and the integration of satellites into a “system of systems” architecture would provide much greater capabilities at much lower costs, these technological trends and the post–September 11, 2001, surge in U.S. defense spending are increasing the costs and uncertainties associated with transformational military projects.161 The United States is the undisputed front-runner when it comes to military space spending, but the faster it runs, the more it seems to trip over its own feet.

The evident deficiencies of the military space acquisition process have deep roots. A 2003 Defense Science Board/Air Force Scientific Advisory Board report (the “Young Panel”) identified serious systemic problems, including undisciplined definition of and uncontrolled growth in requirements, an acquisition process biased to produce unrealistically low cost estimates, an erosion of engineering and managerial competence among government overseers, and industry failure to follow best practices.162 The GAO observed that “DOD starts more programs than it can afford over the long run, forcing programs to underestimate costs and overpromise capabilities” in order to get funded each year. Senior defense officials do not want to make difficult choices among space programs or scale back the desired capabilities in response to budget shortfalls, so product developers “pursue exotic solutions and technologies that can, in theory, do it all”—a form of denial that perpetuates the problem.163

Concerted efforts to reform the space acquisition process have not improved the results. Two years after the Young Panel report, congressional appropriators judged that space acquisition programs “have collectively gotten worse” and could deteriorate even further:

the same space-acquisition professionals (both in the government and in industry) that are struggling to execute the current level of investment will soon face greater challenges managing the additional programmatic content and complexity that comes with the budget ramp- up. Unless DoD takes significant corrective action, the Committee is very concerned that the space acquisition workforce may not meet these challenges effectively. In fact, the Committee is concerned whether DoD is in a position to make appropriate choices regarding which programs to pursue given the systemic deficiencies that reduce the availability of good data (cost, technical maturity, acquisition approach, schedule) to senior leadership.164

Supporters of the SPACECOM program understand that massive cost over-runs and development delays are eroding congressional support for major projects that are integral to plans for U.S. military space dominance, defense transformation, and the coercive prevention strategy. Senator Wayne Allard told the National Defense Industrial Association that “the Air Force and its contractors have lost all credibility with Congress when it comes to space acquisition” and that “continued mismanagement of our space acquisition programs is a far greater threat to our space dominance than any external threat.”165 But much as Allard and senior SPACECOM officials might like to believe that military space acquisition problems can be rectified by slowing the pace, relying more on proven technology, and reorganizing management, informed observers have come to believe that the factors driving the exorbitant costs of high-tech military acquisition in general, and space projects in particular, “have become so widespread and chronic that they threaten to undermine the viability of the entire transformation agenda.”166 Simon “Pete” Worden, a retired senior Air Force officer with a long history of support for expanded U.S. military space activities, has observed that “the most compelling case against space weapons is that the U.S. space industry and associated military space leadership are incapable of delivering any space capability, let alone a space weapon.”167

The fixation on unilateral military space dominance contributes to military space acquisition problems in several ways. First, trying to revolutionize U.S. military space capabilities on an accelerated schedule in an atmosphere of radical uncertainty about future threats, missions, and technologies is bound to produce expensive programs that cannot provide all the promised results. Getting diverse parts of the U.S. military, intelligence, and homeland security communities to agree on required capabilities that should be designed into satellites that will not be deployed for a decade or more is difficult enough. Even more challenging is coordinating space acquisition projects with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies who recognize the benefits of interoperable communications and navigation systems but who lack SPACECOM’s lavish acquisition budget and do not share its highly adversarial view of space security.168

Second, tighter export controls have increased the U.S. commercial space industry’s dependence on the Defense Department and raised the costs and risks associated with developing new military space capabilities. Contractors who are desperate to make the winning bid for a small number of lucrative, long-lead-time development projects are likely to promise whatever the sole customer wants, on the fastest possible schedule and at the lowest possible price, in the expectation that requirements, schedule, and cost will be adjust- ed after the project is underway. Moreover, as the primary customer, the DOD must provide more investment funding, pay a larger portion of fixed costs, and shoulder more responsibility for keeping contractors in business than it would if the commercial side of the U.S. space industry was flourishing. For example, the government’s share of the EELV program, a government-industry partnership intended to reduce the life-cycle cost of launching large satellites, had nearly doubled by 2005 over the $18.8 billion baseline approved in 2002, with a little more than half of the increase due to the lack of a commercial market.169

Some international cooperation that could reduce costs is precluded altogether, and other forms of cooperation are constrained with damaging results. In April 2005, the $110 million Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) close proximity experiment failed when the DART spacecraft used up most of its fuel too quickly, then collided with a military communications satellite and knocked it out of orbit. NASA cited export control concerns as the reason why the official DART Mishap Investigation Board report was not publicly released, but a summary of the board’s report indicates that “insufficient technical communication between the project and an international vendor due to perceived restrictions in export control regulations did not allow for adequate insight.”170 The summary does not specify how restrictions on the exchange of technical information contributed to the errors that caused DART to collide rather than rendezvous with its cooperative target. Even without sensitive details, though, the summary is a useful reminder of how easily things can go wrong and how greatly small mistakes can matter when operating in outer space. Finally, many senior political leaders who have embraced the SPACECOM vision lack the technical training to understand the scientific and engineering challenges involved. As one observer generally sympathetic to SPACECOM remarked:

During the Cold War, the performance requirements of key military systems were driven mainly by what was known about the dominant threat. In a “capabilities-based” planning environment, there is much more latitude for imagination. But if senior decision-makers lack a grasp of technological realities, then the possibility of unexecutable requirements would exist even in an otherwise optimal acquisition system.171

From what can be discerned from available information, the magnitude of expenditure, the specific allocation to development projects, and the overall management of the weapons acquisition process do not appear sufficient to overturn the traditional presumption that decisive dominance in space cannot be achieved.


157. AFSPC, Strategic Master Plan, 13.

158. Andy Pasztor, "U.S.'s Lofty Plans for Smart Satellites Fall Back to Earth," Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2006.

159. GAO, Space Acquisition: DOD Needs to Take More Action to Address Unrealistic Initial Cost Estimates of Space Systems, report prepared for the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the House Committee on Armed Services, GAO-07-96, November 2006, 1. U.S. policy requires that independent cost and schedule estimates be prepared but not that they be relied upon in making major space acquisition decisions. The number of Air Force cost estimators available to work on these independent assessments has decreased from 680 to 280, and the amount of information they have to work with has also decreased. Also, the current rate of cost growth in space acquisition programs is even higher than the historical average used by the CBO assessment in Figure 3.

160. GAO, Defense Acquisitions, 9–11; and GAO, Space System Acquisition, assessment prepared for the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense of the House Committee on Appropriations, June 23, 2005,

161. On the defense sector's failure to realize economic gains from information technology comparable to those in other IT-rich sectors, see David C. Gompert and Paul Bracken, "Bringing Defense into the Information Economy," CTNSP Defense and Technology Paper no. 28, Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University, Washington, DC, March 2006,

162. Defense Science Board/Air Force Scientific Advisory Board Joint Task Force on Acquisition of National Security Space Programs, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, May 2003, 2–4,

163. GAO, Space System Acquisition, 7–9.

164. House Committee on Appropriations, Report on Department of Defense Appropriations Bill, 2006, 109th Cong., 1st sess., 2005, H. Rep. 119, section on "Problems in DOD Space Programs."

165. Wayne Allard, speech to the "Space Policy and Architecture Symposium," of the National Defense Industrial Association, Arlington, VA, September 23, 2005,

166. Loren B. Thompson, Can the Space Sector Meet Military Goals for Space? The Tension between Transformation and Federal Management Practices (Arlington, VA: The Lexington Institute, 2005), 5. The report is available at

167. Simon Worden, "High Anxiety," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2006, 22.

168. Xavier Pasco, "A European Approach to Space Security," CISSM working paper, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, July 2006, 5–6,

169. GAO, Defense Space Activities: Continuation of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program's Progress to Date Subject to Some Uncertainties, report prepared for the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces of the Committee on the Armed Services, June 24, 2004, GAO-04-778R,; and Michael Fabey, "Many Factors Boost Military-Launch Costs," Defense News, May 16, 2005, 20.

170. "NASA Report: Overview of the DART Mishap Investigation Results–For Public Release," May 15, 2006,

171. Thompson, Can the Space Sector Meet Military Goals for Space? 29.