DOD Needs To Improve Space Acquisition Employee Tracking, says GAO

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing; a feat accomplished through a massive federal government contract program. A half century later, the federal government continues to pour significant resources into space infrastructure, particularly through the Department of Defense. A recent GAO report provided a glimpse into the size and composition of the Department of Defense space contracting workforce. While GAO notes more precise data is needed, it is clear that space acquisitions continue to be supported by a robust workforce.

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision directing GAO to conduct a review of the Department of Defense’s space acquisition workforce. Congress directed GAO to examine both the location and quantity of staff supporting space acquisitions, in addition to identifying challenges DOD may face with respect to its space asset acquisitions. GAO published its report earlier this month.

So just how interested is the federal government in space development? Roughly $65-billion-over-5-years interested. And that number just accounts for Department of Defense acquisitions. This figure includes acquisitions for a wide range of space assets, including launch vehicles, satellites, ground control systems, and portable equipment. It does not account for any civilian agency space procurements, however.

Space acquisitions are a somewhat frequent topic of GAO review. For example, in 2016, GAO released a report criticizing the fragmented and duplicative nature of DoD space procurements, which was causing management and oversight issues. GAO’s most recent report acknowledged that project fragmentation impacts DoD space acquisition staffing; however, that issue took a backseat to the lack of discernible data about the DoD space acquisition workforce.

Among GAO’s major findings was the absence of comprehensive data regarding DoD’s space acquisition workforce. There was no centralized repository that identified individuals committed to space acquisitions. This is due in part to the fact that space acquisitions are often handled by offices that handle other acquisition programs aside from those relating to space. As such, GAO was forced to develop its own methods of identifying space workforce employees.

The data GAO was able to obtain, however, offers some interesting insight into the strength of the federal space procurement machine. GAO estimates that DoD employs at least 8,000 space acquisition personnel across 20 United States locations. Additionally, GAO’s count only includes those individuals that devote 50 percent or more of their time to space acquisition work. To put this in perspective, DoD employs approximately 170,000 acquisition personnel. But nearly 5 percent of DoD’s acquisition workforce deals with space based procurements. While this may not sound like a substantial proportion of staff, given the size and diversity of DoD’s acquisition programs, 5 percent is a substantial investment of resources.

Another consideration in GAO’s report was the physical distribution of space acquisition personnel across the country. GAO summarized the geographic distribution as follows:

About 45 percent of the overall space acquisition workforce is located at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, California. The Army space acquisition workforce is located primarily at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The Navy space acquisition workforce is located at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego, California, and a few other locations.

Interestingly, DoD also reports struggling to be able to retain qualified talent. According to GAO, “DOD officials stated that it is particularly difficult to attract people with certain technical expertise, such as cybersecurity and systems engineering, because they are in high demand in both government and private industry.” Additionally, the high cost of living around the facilities engaged in space acquisitions is also a deterrent to finding and retaining qualified staff.

For those contractors involved in space acquisitions or those contractors considering moving in that direction, GAO’s report offers insight into the strength of the acquisition operation for space assets in the federal government. Given GAO’s report, perhaps a slight revision is in order to the quintessential line delivered by one of my favorite captains: “Space–a promising federal contracting frontier.” On second thought, maybe I should keep my day job.