Publicly Released: January 7, 2022
The objective of this audit was to determine the extent to which the DoD maintained the equipment and infrastructure needed to support space launches and whether DoD facilities could support future launch requirements. We reviewed the Space Force’s maintenance of launch range items at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, and Patrick Space Force Base, Florida, and we determined whether range items enabled successful space launches.
The Space Force became the newest Military Service when the President signed the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Among other responsibilities, the Space Force provides equipment and infrastructure to support launch requirements for the DoD’s National Security Space Launch program; Federal civilian agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; and commercial activities. Launches occur along the eastern and western ranges, and each range includes Government-maintained range items, such as radars, optical devices, and weather towers. Range personnel use range equipment to help ensure public safety by monitoring the trajectory of a launch vehicle and aborting or destroying the launch vehicle if necessary. Range items also provide data to the launch provider for real time and post-launch analysis.
The Space Force maintained launch range items and supported DoD, Federal civilian agencies, and commercial space launches. Specifically, maintenance personnel supporting the eastern and western ranges completed 253 of 262 (97 percent) required maintenance inspections for the 20 range items we reviewed. In addition, range item performance enabled successful launches for the 30 launches we reviewed out of 90 DoD, Federal civilian agencies, and commercial space launches that occurred between January 2018 and March 2021.
Although the Space Force maintained range items and enabled successful launches, according to Space Force data, 74 of all 260 (28 percent) eastern and western range items did not have the spare parts needed to repair or replace some range item components if necessary. This amount included 31 range items that did not have any spare parts for mission-critical range item components. If mission-critical components fail, the failure could result in post-launch data loss or a mission abort, or a pre-launch scrub (postponed to a new launch time) or hold (pause until later in the launch window). The Space Force lacked spare parts for these 74 range items because the spares were obsolete, which refers to parts that are no longer made or are not available for purchase.
The Space Force is conducting ongoing and planned range item upgrades to address the most critical range item spare parts shortages. Of the 31 range items with spare parts shortages for mission-critical components, the Space Force:
- upgraded 4 range items and secured funding for planned upgrades to an additional 9 range items,
- planned upgrades, but is awaiting funding, for 1 range item upgrade,
- relied on redundant systems for 4 range items, and
- plans to divest 18 range items.
The Space Force expects the planned upgrades, regardless of funding status, to be complete prior to 2024.
The Chief of Space Operations also directed launch providers using the eastern and western ranges to adopt the Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS) by October 1, 2025. The AFSS is a launch-vehicle mounted system with the capability to track and, if necessary, terminate a launch vehicle’s flight. This capability makes many range items that are currently used to ensure safety during a launch unnecessary. The range‑item upgrade efforts and the Chief of Space Operations mandate that launch providers transition to AFSS are part of a broader initiative to modernize the eastern and western ranges. The Space Force refers to this modernization initiative as the “Range of the Future 2028.” Under this initiative, the Space Force is upgrading its legacy range communication architecture to a modern architecture that will enable launch providers to use their own range instrumentation rather than rely on Space Force range items. This upgrade will enable the Space Force to decommission and replace some range items; this should further reduce the number of obsolete range items on which the Space Force relies to support launches.
We determined that the Space Force actions to mitigate these spare parts shortages were appropriate, and we are not making recommendations to the Space Force regarding this area.
While the Space Force maintained launch range items and supported space launch requirements, the Space Force is at an increased risk that aging range items with obsolete components could limit future launch capacity on the eastern and western ranges. The Space Force projects that the total number of launches it will support will increase from 49 in 2021 to 157 in 2027, which represents an increase of 220 percent. This increased operational tempo, combined with a lack of spare parts for mission critical range item components, increases the possibility that a non‑mission capable range item will cause a launch hold or scrub. Furthermore, launch delays could occur on the eastern and western ranges if range items remain in a non-mission capable status for an extended period.
The Space Force’s intent for the “Range of the Future 2028” initiative is to create a modern range that can adapt to future launch demands. However, if the Space Force does not complete planned Range of the Future upgrade projects on schedule, or if the anticipated increase in commercial launch requirements is higher than predicted, then the Space Force ranges may not be able to support all future launch requirements.
Management Comments and Our Response
We considered management comments on a discussion draft copy of this report when preparing this final report. We did not make any recommendations; therefore, no management comments are required.
This report is the result of Project No. D2021-D000RH-0094.000.