GAO: Barriers to commercial satellite launch 'surmountable' for DOD

Centralizing data related to the Defense Department's work with commercial satellites could be one of the first tasks for a “Space Force.”

The Defense Department -- and possibly any iteration of a “Space Force” -- could benefit from having commercial satellite providers host its sensors and communications payloads, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In a July 30 report submitted to Congress, GAO endorsed the Defense Department's use of commercially hosted military payloads a way to save money and recommended it consolidate the current decentralized program data.

DOD has used three commercially hosted payloads with another three planned or underway through 2022.

In a letter to House Armed Services Committee, GAO auditors wrote that commercially hosted payloads give program officials “opportunity to consider fresh approaches for acquiring space-based capabilities that may be more cost-effective, place technologies on orbit more quickly, and potentially offer added resilience and augmented capabilities to allay emerging threats.”

GAO noted that DOD faced surmountable barriers when it comes to using commercially hosted payloads, including a perception among DOD officials that migration to private-sector providers would be “too difficult” due to mismatched procurement, budget and planning timelines. Additionally, DOD has “limited, fragmented knowledge” about mitigating challenges because program offices aren’t required to share information, such as cost and technical data or lessons learned.

DOD officials also voiced concerns that commercial hosting could pose a risk if a the provider disconnects power to the government’s payload to redirect it for another function. They were also concerned that commercial testing and integration standards “may be less robust than those used by traditional government programs to ensure success,” GAO said.

The report comes as DOD released its plan for creating a space-focused military branch, and continues to embrace commercial data hosting, such as with the newly released multibillion dollar proposal for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud program, which is already under protest.

Overall, GAO concluded that commercial payload hosting is worth a try and could increase DOD system resiliency.

“As DOD considers new architectures and acquisition approaches, commercially hosted payloads have the potential to play a role in delivering needed capabilities on orbit more quickly and at a more affordable cost than traditional DOD space acquisitions,” GAO wrote, adding that DOD would benefit from greater information sharing in a centralized location.

“Centralized collection and assessment of agency-wide data would help enable DOD to mitigate the logistical challenges inherent in matching payloads to hosts” so it can “rapidly and affordably address emerging threats in space.”