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GPS III RFP Delayed Again as GAO Underscores GPS Schedule Challenges

December 18, 2017

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An additional delay in release of the GPS III RFP emerged just as federal watchdogs released a new report detailing the challenges Air Fore managers will face in keeping all the components of the modernization program on track.

The long-expected report from the Government Accountability Office looks at the overall effort to update GPS including developing a new ground system, more capable receiver cards for military equipment and new satellites to sustain and improve the constellation.

The report came out Dec 12, several days after the planned release of the Request for Proposals (RFP) to build the next tranche of GPS III satellites. The RFP was supposed to come out this fall but its release was pushed back to around December 7. According to an Air Force spokesman it is now to be released before the end of the year. The procurement to build 22 new spacecraft is likely to be one of the largest space contracts for some time and the Air Force has said it wants to choose just one prime contractor to minimize costs. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are expected to bid.

It is not clear what caused the delay though Gen. John F. Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, California, told reporters in early November that the Air Force needed approval from the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, or JROC, before proceeding. The JROC is a panel of senior Pentagon officials that scrutinizes every major military procurement.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is cautious about any new delays but notes that the impressively long-lived GPS satellites have given the program an extra two years of margins against future problems.  

"The nearly 2-year buffer between planned operation and actual need for the first GPS III satellite permits the Air Force additional time to resolve any development issues," GAO wrote in its report Global Positioning System: Better Planning and Coordination Needed to Improve Prospects for Fielding Modernized. "Because of this additional 2-year schedule buffer, we are not making a recommendation at this time to address the short-term challenges we have identified but will continue to assess the progress of each of the programs and risks to constellation sustainment in our future work."

Ground System Delays
The new Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) is necessary to fully control the new satellites and operate some of GPS III's key enhancements including the new military code or M-code. OCX prime contractor Raytheon has been making progress. In September, it passed its sixth tri-annual Deep Dive before Ellen M. Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics and delivered OCX Block 0 (the Launch and Checkout System) to the Air Force on September 29.

"Raytheon needs to deliver this essential, advanced capability to support our nation," said Lord after the review. "I was pleased to hear the contractor will deliver the Launch and Checkout System this fall to support the inaugural launch of GPS III in 2018, and expect them to deliver full OCX program capability by their June 2021 contractual deadline."

The program continues to face risks to its schedule, however, even after switching to a cloud-based development platform to enable rapid coding and testing. OCX made the jump to the cloud on October 3, 2016 — a month after the September 1 start of fiscal year 2017. According to GAO "more OCX block 0 delays in early fiscal year 2017 complicated Air Force test plans, resulting in changes to the sequence and timing of events." This led, GAO said, to the introduction of concurrency at various points throughout the testing, the use of incomplete software in early testing, and an increase in the likelihood of discovering issues later in pre-launch integrated testing.

"If issues requiring corrective work are discovered during subsequent integrated testing," GAO wrote, "the GPS III launch schedule may be delayed further since there is minimal schedule margin on OCX Block 0 for correcting any additional problems that may be found."

Beyond that, eight of the first 10 GPS III satellites likely will be on orbit before they can be tested to see if they work as intended with OCX blocks 1 and 2, said GAO. If problems are found they could ripple through the program. Moreover, the more advanced satellites will have ticked through years of their design life without being able to use all their capabilities. "In fact, some of the GPS III satellites will be in orbit, and not operating fully, for 3.5 years under the current schedule."

Because of delays in OCX the Air Force developed two additional programs to help keep things on track:  the COps (Contingency Operations) program to control the GPS III satellites until OCX is ready and MCUE or M-code Early Use to enable use of the core capabilities of the new M-code and testing to support the development of user equipment.  These will bring some limited capabilities online but pileup of new program is creating new problems.

DoD's office of the director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) has pointed out that the COps schedule is risky as there is limited time between the developmental and operational testing for the evaluation of test results and resolution of any problems. "The COps program has already begun drawing from its 60-day schedule margin, with a quarter of this margin used within the first 5 months after development started," reported GAO.

If COps is late it impacts the use of M-code because the schedule for MCEU, the early-use M-code program, depends on the timely completion of COps. Keeping COps development running on time is made harder by the fact that OCX has priority over COps when it comes to competing for limited testing resources. According to the schedule included in the report there will be four GPS III satellites launched by the end of fiscal year 2020, the year MCEU is supposed to be ready. If it is not ready then it will not be possible to confirm that the satellites can perform some of the M-code capabilities with MCEU.

If that weren't complex enough there are risks that the full M-code broadcast capability won't be available as planned because: (1) it is dependent on unproven efficiencies in software coding, (2) the program has not yet completed a baseline review, which may identify additional time needed to complete currently contracted work, and (3) there are known changes to the program that must be done that are not included in the proposed schedule.

All this uncertainty necessarily complicates the work to upgrade more than 700 different weapons systems to be able to use M-code. So far the estimated cost is $2.5 billion through 2021, but the transition is fully funded for only 28 weapons systems and partially funded for another 78. That leaves 616 weapons systems that will need upgrading — with billions in additional funding likely to be needed to enable to M-code use when it's ready.

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