The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is concerned that Space Force is operating without an up-to-date long-term plan for its satellite network.
Space Force—a branch of the U.S. military—runs a network of 19 antennas around the world that communicate with and control U.S. government satellites that support missions including defense and intelligence operations. This network is aging and difficult to maintain. At the same time, demand on the network is increasing as more satellites are launched.
Space Force’s long-term plan to sustain this network hasn’t been updated since 2017, so it doesn’t reflect recent acquisitions or organizational changes. For instance, it’s unclear which staff offices within Space Force are responsible for maintaining this network.
User demand for Satellite Control Network (SCN) support runs high and is expected to increase. The utilization rate for the SCN has averaged 75 percent over the last decade. This rate exceeds the 70 percent level that Space Force officials cite as the threshold the commercial industry uses to indicate the need for more capacity. Annual SCN-supported satellite launches have also tripled since 2012. Satellite users who rely on the SCN and whom GAO interviewed said that this increased demand, and resulting limits on system availability, could compromise their missions in the future.
GAO found that Space Force is developing approaches to address SCN demand and other challenges, but said Space Force lacks an updated long-term sustainment plan. For example, it has requested SCN users to reduce-non critical contacts. This step has helped reduce utilization rates in recent years. Space Force is also managing two improvement efforts to update ground control electronics and antennas intended to sustain the SCN. However, the SCN lifecycle sustainment plan, issued in 2017, does not include these efforts or reflect the transition of SCN’s responsibility to Space Force.
Space Force is seeking additional SCN capacity by exploring the use of commercial antennas and those operated by other federal agencies. Both could provide some capacity to SCN-supported satellites. Space Force is also working to develop and acquire 12 new, higher-capacity antennas, an effort known as Satellite Communication Augmentation Resource. The first prototype is expected in 2025.
GAO recommends that Space Force update the SCN lifecycle sustainment plan, or issue a new one, that includes current efforts and Space Force responsibilities. The Defense Department agreed with this recommendation.