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New Austerity Squeezes GPS as DoD Tightens Its Belt

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Military managers, fidgeting like new-year dieters at a Weight Watchers meeting, anxiously wait to see what they'll have to live without now that years of war-fueled budget indulgence are over. How will GPS fare as Congress reviews the president's budget?

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Embracing the need for debt-driven discipline, the White House has revised its strategy for the nation’s defense, taking a more fiscally constrained approach that reduces the number of troops and future spending on defense systems.

The new plan, formally announced January 5, was already being put into effect last summer. “The strategic guid­ance was the compass by which we steered the budget review leading to the president’s budget for fiscal year ‘13 and the years thereafter,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter told reporters.

Indeed, during last summer the Air Force took back its Program Objective Management (POM) document — a key element in the budgetary process — to update it in light of new financial direc­tives.

The POM, revised every other year, lays out a prioritized six-year plan cov­ering budgets two to seven years out. The results of the USAF work and the Pentagon’s ultimate spending decisions will be revealed in early February when the president sends his fiscal year 2013 (FY13) budget to Congress.

How GPS will fare as Congress reviews the president’s budget is unclear. For fiscal year 2012, they made relatively few adjustments to the White House request for the Global Positioning Sys­tem despite pressure to find cuts. And it only looked like Congress took back all the GPS III procurement money for 2011.

GPS III Money Rescinded — Not
The eye-popping rescission of $122.5 million from the GPS III program was included in the report by the House and Senate conferees, detailing the compro­mises made by each side to get to the final FY12 appropriations bill. Though alarm­ing on the surface, it was a bookkeeping maneuver made necessary by Congress’s long-standing inability to get budget bills done in time for the start of each fiscal year.

The president requested the $122.5 million for long-lead-time parts for three GPS III satellites in FY11. That plan was scaled back to two satellites in the 2012 budget. Congress was still working on 2011, however, when the decision was made to fund just two spacecraft instead of three — so, Con­gress approved the originally requested amount of money.

The government was operating, however, under a continuing resolu­tion period at the beginning of FY11. That “jeopardized the start of any GPS III production under New Start rules,” explained a Pentagon spokesperson in an email response to questions from Inside GNSS.

To avoid problems Congress permit­ted FY10 monies to be reprogrammed to buy long lead items for those two GPS III satellites. The monies ultimately approved for three-satellites worth of long-lead items was now completely unnecessary and was therefore rescinded in the FY12 budget.

The upshot? No effect on the GPS III program, although where the repro­grammed FY10 money came from remains unclear.

Positive Results for Fiscal Year 2012
As for FY12, Congress added a bit to the White House request of $1.462 billion for the GPS program and approved a total of $1.473 billion. That included $433.526 million to procure GPS III satellites 3 and 4, another $81.81 million for advance procurement items for GPS III satellites 5 and 6, and an additional $458.08 million ($5 million less than requested) for further GPS III develop­ment.

Congress also approved the president’s request of $7.6 mil­lion to buy ground segment equipment and $17.89 million for GPS IIF and control segment development. A total of $366.889 was approved for development work on the Next Generation Operational Control System or OCX. That is $24 million less than requested.

Congress, however, boosted by $40 million the $67.689 mil­lion originally requested for the procurement of the GPS IIF satellites. That money was added to “bolster GPS IIF production support,” said a Pentagon spokesperson.

“The GPS IIF program experienced numerous, well-docu­mented technical issues during the development program,” said the spokesman in an email response, “Additional funding was added over several years to address these issues.”

FY13 — Looks Good So Far
The budget numbers for FY13 have not been released but one source knowledgeable about the process said the White House would request full funding for the GPS program.

That does not mean that everything on the GPS wish list was budgeted — but there would be enough money to keep the program on track, explained the source who, like each of the experts discussing the sensitive subject of the Pentagon’s financial choices, asked not to be named.

Exactly when the budget will come out is unclear. A White House spokesperson said that no date had been announced, although Bloomberg reported that some details would be released on January 26 and the full budget would come out February 6.

Squabbles certainly occurred during the development of the president’s funding request. Whatever they were, however, they will likely look tame compared to what comes next.

With government spending a major focus of the upcom­ing election, Congress can be counted on to scrutinize every penny. Though Capitol Hill has been very supportive of the GPS program so far, nothing is assured. And the issue may be out of its hands.

The Budget Control Act passed by Congress last year required the Pentagon to make over $450 billion in budget cuts over 10 years. Those cuts were included in the new strategic guidance.

The legislation also set up a joint House-Senate Supercom­mittee to find at least another $1.2 trillion in cuts over 10 years — which it failed to do by the deadline of November 23. Now, unless Congress steps up and amends the act, the Defense Department will have to find another half a trillion dollars in spending reductions under a mandatory provision in the bill called sequestration.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said repeatedly that such additional cuts would be devastating. They would “force us to shed missions and commitments and capabilities that we believe are necessary to protect core U.S. national security interests,” he told reporters during the press briefing on the new strategy.

“If we had to do over a trillion dollars in cuts in this depart­ment, I have to tell you that the strategy that we developed, we’d probably have to . . . start over,” he added during an interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Fortunately sequestration does not kick in until January 2013. Congress could pass a law reducing or eliminating the additional cuts. President Obama has said, however, that he would veto any such dialing back of the Budget Control Act’s requirements.

Given the highly caustic nature of the money battles between Congress and the White House so far, and the fact that an election vote is looming in November, the politics seem to lean in favor of sequestration.

Even if sequestration is avoided, every source agreed that the GPS program is facing serious budget pressure.

A Grim Outlook for FY14 and Beyond
“Things will probably change drastically” in FY14, said one source. “It is not unrealistic to see a 25 percent cut in most space programs.” That would comprise a 5 percent/per year reduction over five years, the source explained.

The strain will be so great, a GPS expert suggested, that military decision makers could decide to slow satellite con­struction and allow the constellation to dwindle in size.

“They are going to be desperately seeking alternatives that they think will be cheaper,” said the source. “They will want to abandon the promises of the new signals.”

Pentagon officials “are going to stretch out the programs,” the expert predicted. The satellites won’t be available to launch and the constellation will shrink.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter confirmed the harsh realities facing acquisition programs during the strat­egy press briefing: “…we have had to make major changes in every category of the budget in order to meet this $487 billion target. That includes modernization.”

Having fewer satellites on obit would theoretically not affect military users, the source said, because DoD has a require­ment for just 24 satellites, although since 2010 the Air Force has implemented an optimized 27-satellite geometry to ensure robust coverage for U.S. and allied troops operating in the steep terrain of Afghanistan.

The system currently has 31 satellites operating with four additional decommissioned craft still on orbit, although some of the satellites are essentially doubled up, reducing the effective size of the constellation.

Those five “spares” could be pressed into service in an emergency to bridge a gap until new replacement satellites were launched. Thus, the Air Force could conceivably delay the expense of launch — and perhaps even some of the expense of building satellites — until absolutely necessary.

Though military planners might not need 30 satellites, especially after the planned drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, a smaller constellation could have implications for civil users, especially those in urban canyons where build­ings bounce GPS signals around and line-of-sight signal reception is blocked or impaired.

Is Support for GPS Part of the New Strategy?
Elements in the new strategy suggest continued, perhaps even greater, support for the GPS in the future.

Few systems, the experts told Wash­ington View, will be as critical as GPS for the success of the plans described by Panetta, plans that place a premium on operations in the Middle East and “rebalance efforts toward the Asia-Pacific region.”

“The Pacific is a big area,” quipped one source. “You have to know where you are.”

The DoD also said it will continue “efforts to enhance resiliency and effec­tiveness of critical space-based capabili­ties.”

“Overall I think that satellite sys­tems will indeed be treated relatively leniently in the upcoming defense bud­get cutbacks,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security and defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

And the guidance specifically lists “support of civil authorities” as a prima­ry mission — though that is described in terms of
disaster response, not the support of civilian use of GPS. Given the essential nature of GPS to dozens of industries, police and rescue applications and the nation’s air safety systems, that mission objective could conceivably be interpreted to include the GPS system.

At least the civil community has a particularly direct and technically adept DoD representative with whom to bring up these issues. Deputy Secretary of Defense Carter, who helped brief the press on the new strategy, has replaced William Lynn as the Defense Depart­ment co-chair of the National Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Tim­ing (PNT) Executive Committee — the president’s top advisory group on naviga­tion policy.

Carter was under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics until October 2011. He achieved a doc­torate in
theoretical physics, served on the Defense Science Board, and has held positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as Harvard.

Scramble to Save Money
Whatever priority the GPS program is given within the new strategy, experts agree the program will face financial strains.

If the Air Force does not make some changes “they’ll run into (FY14) and find out they can’t do what they need to do,” said a GPS expert knowledgeable about the budget deliberations.

The search is underway to find new ways to save and, as another source described it, the Pentagon is “trying to open the door fairly wide” to different ideas.

One key area for savings is launch costs. As reported in Washington View in September, the Air Force is studying ways to loft more than one GPS satellite per launch. Though the satellites may need to be stripped of extra payloads, doubling up could save as much as $60 to $100 million per spacecraft.

“They need to move to dual launch,” said one expert. “The other countries do triple launches — that is their standard.”

The shift to dual launch could take place starting with the eighth GPS III satellite — even as early as the fifth or sixth GPS III spacecraft, said one source.

The infrastructure used for boosting those satellites could also change. One concept is to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base instead of strictly from Cape Canaveral, said an insider. In the future the Air Force might also consider using other launch vehicles in addition to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) — perhaps even foreign vehicles such as Europe’s Ariane 5.

Some of these ideas present chal­lenges that could make them impracti­cal, countered a different expert. It would take money to get Vandenberg ready for GPS launches and having another launch crew would add expense — although it might be possible to shuttle a crew from coast to coast. Some of the sensitive pay­loads on a GPS satellite could preclude them from being put on anything but a U.S. launch vehicle, the source noted.

Changes in Control Segment?
Some of the budget-driven ideas under study could also affect the GPS control segment.

For example, one source said the Air Force is looking at taking the capabil­ity of the Launch/Early Orbit, Anomaly Resolution, Disposal, and Operations (LADO) System, which is used to launch, check out, and dispose of GPS satellites, and folding it into the OCX now under development by Raytheon.

But LADO, a product of Braxton Technologies, is a very capable system, said the source, able to handle nearly every aspect of controlling the GPS sat­ellites. It might work well as a supplement or backup to OCX as opposed to being folded into the system, experts suggested.

“The only thing it doesn’t do is upload the nav message,” one source said, noting that LADO has been able to recapture control of errant satellites and return them to Air Force operations.

LADO can be used to control the GPS satellites, confirmed another source. “It is apparently particularly helpful for those satellites that have been put in a semi-dormant stage — that have not totally failed but are so weak we have withdrawn them, but they could be used in the event of an emergency and give us a few years more of useful life.”

That could be especially useful should the Pentagon decide to forego a larger constellation and finds itself calling on decommissioned satellites to fill gaps until new craft are launched. The many aging GPS satellites on orbit could neces­sitate such a maneuver even without an active decision to downsize the constel­lation.

Since LADO is already in hand, it would be available to handle the GPS III satellites should OCX run into delays, pointed out one expert, and it could provide a completely independent system for controlling the constellation should OCX or the current control software be attacked by hackers — a threat scenario and solution that is under study, said a source.

“Single-string failure for GPS is a really a big issue,” said one expert. “Even though they may have a backup for GPS at Vandenberg, if you have a Trojan horse in both the backup and the pri­mary you can’t control the satellites.”The lean eight-person team that runs the LADO system appears to have inspired another idea. The Air Force is weighing the idea of having GPS be a government-owned, but contractor-operated system, a source told Wash­ington View.

The military personnel who control the GPS system each have a three-year tenure, explained the source. Two-thirds of that time is spent either in training to learn to handle the system or train­ing their replacement, said the insider. If constellation control was handled by a small contractor team — a stable group with less staff turnover — much of the complexity inherent in the con­trol segment would go away, the expert explained. Though such a team might not be appropriate to operate the mission portion of payloads, the source said, they could likely handle the operation of the constellation itself — and do so for less.

Putting in changes now — shifting how systems are staffed, going forward with dual launch, and implementing other cost-saving measures such as using more commercial, off-the-shelf equipment — are essential to maintain­ing the capability the GPS constellation now provides, a source told Washington View.

“The only alternative is slip every­thing to the right — which is going to cause great issues with constellation sus­tainment,” said the insider. “We know there is fairly good funding now. The question is, is there some of that fund­ing we can use now to help mitigate issues that we know may come because of less-than-full-funding as we go down the road — to ensure that the capability on orbit doesn’t go down.”

Even though budgets are healthi­er now, that does not mean that easy financing exists for the ideas being dis­cussed. The money needed to fund cost-saving changes may not be available.

The government is being driven by cash flow and the current year’s budget, said another expert, and it kicks every­thing else down the road.

“Right now the government is not in a position . . . to spend money today to save money in the future.”

Copyright © 2017 Gibbons Media & Research LLC, all rights reserved.

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