Orbiting White Elephants: Military Satellites Don't Perform as Planned

By Stew Magnuson
Delays and cost overruns in military and spy satellite programs are well known. The spiraling cost of launching the spacecraft is another challenge facing the community. Less talked about are the ground segments of space programs.
The Defense Department has a long-standing problem synchronizing the development of terminals and ground control stations to satellite launch dates.The result is satellites that are operating under capacity.
The problem is not getting any better, the Government Accountability Office pointed out in its annual survey of Defense Department acquisition programs released March 29.
The Air Force Space-Based Infrared System-High satellite, designed primarily to carry out missile warning missions, was launched in May 2011 despite the lack of a functioning ground systems, which is not expected to be ready until 2018.
The Navy launched the first of its planned fleet of five Mobile User Objective System communication satellites Feb. 24. However, it will not be fully functional until a second MUOS satellite joins it in orbit and the joint tactical radio systems terminals are ready. Until that day, the MUOS system will operate at only 10 percent of its capacity.
Operational testing of JTRS terminals has been delayed until February 2014. GAO gave high marks to the Navy for the satellite itself, but noted that JTRS was an Army program, which the Navy does not control.
SBIRS-High was launched nine years behind schedule. At one time, it served as poster child for over budget space programs. It will eventually comprise four satellites in stationary geosynchronous orbit.
“The program expects the cost of the third and fourth satellite to grow significantly,” GAO said. The first spacecraft was also sent to orbit without the necessary software to perform a shut down and recover function. That software will be uploaded into the spacecraft later.
“The first [geosynchronous] satellite, and likely the second, will be launched and operating on-orbit before the program can fully leverage the satellites’ capabilities,” GAO noted.
Officials from both programs have said that they will still provide some capability. The 10 percent capacity being used on the MUOS satellite, for example, is a  legacy communication payload that can connect with terminals designed for the aging Ultra-High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) satellites. SBIRS-High program officials told GAO that they are gaining useful data from the first satellite despite an on-orbit checkout process that will continue until January 2013.
The Navy warned that the eight-year gap between contracts for the first two satellites, and the third and fourth ones may result in cost and schedule pressure because of parts obsolescence and technical issues.
The third-generation of GPS satellites is at risk of a similar delay. “The GPS III ground control system is not scheduled for delivery until 15 months after the first scheduled launch and it is unclear whether an interim capability will be delivered in time,” the report said.
Synchronizing the spacecraft with the ground systems and the complex software required to link them has been a long-standing issue in the Defense Department, especially with communications satellites. The terminals have different program managers, who often work for different services, along with separate budgets.
Storing a satellite until the ground segments are ready is not always the best solution. The sensitive components are designed to operate in the harsh space environment, and keeping them in a warehouse may do more harm than good, experts have pointed out. On the other hand, satellites can only last for so many years in space before they degrade. Every year they are in orbit not functioning as designed takes valuable time off their operational life. This also may result in  reduced capacity for war fighters.
The 26-month delay launching the first MUOS spacecraft may result in some communication gaps as two of the aging 1990s era UFO satellites have recently failed, the report noted.
Meanwhile, some of the delays and cost overruns for the spacecraft themselves could be attributed to another little-talked about problem in the space industry: shoddy workmanship and components.
Testimony by Cristina T. Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, released March 21, said Defense Department, Missile Defense Agency and NASA spacecraft programs are all suffering from poor parts quality.
“We found that parts quality problems had affected all 21 programs we reviewed, in some cases contributing to significant cost overruns and schedule delays associated with electronic versus mechanical parts or materials,” she said.
“We found several causes of these problems: poor workmanship, undocumented and untested manufacturing processes, poor control of those processes and materials and failure to prevent contamination, poor part design, design complexity, and an inattention to manufacturing risks,” she testified.
These issues had affected all 21 space programs GAO investigated, according to the testimony.
The March 29 GAO report pointed out problems with subcomponents in both the MUOS and SBIRS-High programs. In SBIRS case, it reported solder fractures on hardware and anomalies and erratic performance of other components.
Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told a gathering of Washington, D.C.-based reporters March 22 that he was unaware of widespread problems with satellite components.
Although he testified at the same Senate Armed Services hearing as Chaplain, he declined to comment further because he had not read the GAO testimony.
Check the National Defense Magazine blog April 16-19 for reports from the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Topics: Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Space

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