GAO on GPS (Again): Challenges in Sustaining and Upgrading Capabilities Persist

A new report on the GPS program from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds the situation considerably improved from last year, when its prediction of a significant risk of the satellite constellation falling below 24 satellites set off alarms in Congress and among the user community.

A new report on the GPS program from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds the situation considerably improved from last year, when its prediction of a significant risk of the satellite constellation falling below 24 satellites set off alarms in Congress and among the user community.

However, the agency once again finds reason for concern about the prospects for the system. These primarily have to do with the unknowns associated with new generations of spacecraft (Block IIF and Block III), the need to improve Department of Defense (DoD) oversight and U.S. Air Force procurement of GPS resources, interagency coordination of civil and military user requirements, and questions about the timing of GPS III launches and completion of the next-generation ground control system (OCX) needed to support them. A reduced number of launch facilities and a crowded launch manifest in the near future represent other risk factors, according to the GAO report.

Cristina Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, outlined the agency’s concerns in a September 15 letter to John F. Tierney, chairman, and Jeff Flake ranking Republican member of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“Since our prior report,” Chaplain wrote, “we found that the GPS IIIA program appears to have furthered its implementation of the ‘back to basics’ approach to avoid repeating the mistakes of GPS IIF and that it has passed a key design milestone [the critical design review in August 2010]. More specifically, the program has maintained stable requirements, has used mature technologies, and is providing more oversight than under the IIF program.”

The Air Force now predicts that the probability of maintaining a constellation of at least 24 operational satellites will remain above 95 percent for the foreseeable future—through at least 2025, the date that the final GPS III satellite is expected to become operational.

Despite these efforts to develop a stable and successful program, however, the agency noted that the GPS IIIA program faces challenges to launching its satellites on schedule. Aside from the fact that the projected GPS III schedule is substantially shorter than those actually achieved in recent generations of GPS space vehicles (SVs),  “[T]he need to compete for limited launch resources has increased across national security space programs and is likely to affect the Air Force’s ability to launch GPS IIF as planned,” the new report states.

The GAO report said that two GPS Wing officials expressed concern that “the GPS program is now in a riskier position than it has been for many years because it does not have any IIR-M satellites in inventory and ready to launch.” In fact, the letter added, the current IIF production and launch schedules indicate that little margin exists to address any potential on-orbit performance issues.

GAO also pointed out that the current schedules for GPS IIIA and OCX have the first launch of a IIIA satellite taking place in early 2014, nearly two years before the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2015 (FY2015) for completion of the OCX needed to control them.

In written responses to questions regarding constellation sustainment raised by the GAO report, the GPS Wing (GPSW) said, “From a constellation perspective, there is no compelling need for us to launch the next IIF satellite prior to fiscal year 2012. However, GPSW continues processing IIF SV-2 and we are following a plan to launch by summer 2011.”

Moreover, the GPS Wing response added, recent longer-term analyses of the GPS constellation by the Aerospace Corporation and Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) indicate that “we have considerable margin before we absolutely MUST launch the first GPS IIIA satellite.”

Finally, the new GAO report gave heavier emphasis to the question of interagency civil-military coordination of requirements. In the agency’s eyes, the GPS interagency requirements process, which is co-chaired by officials from DoD and DoT, remains “relatively untested” and civil agencies continue to find the process confusing.

“This year GAO found that a lack of comprehensive guidance on the GPS interagency requirements process is a key source of this confusion and has contributed to other problems, such as disagreement about and inconsistent implementation of the process,” Chaplain’s letter stated. “In addition, GAO found that the interagency requirements process relies on individual agencies to identify their own requirements rather than identifying PNT needs across agencies.”

In response, AFSPC representatives pointed out that the GPS community “does have an interagency requirements process, the Interagency Forum for Operational Requirements (IFOR),” adding that, “As with any process, there is room for improvement. The IFOR process is no exception.”

The GAO recommended that the DoD and DoT develop a “comprehensive guidance for the GPS interagency requirements process.” However, Ronald Yost, deputy assistant secretary of defense for C3, space & spectrum, in a July 26 letter to Chaplain, disagreed with the recommendation.

Yost cited recent actions by the IFOR to “clarify existing guidance,” ranging from the new IFOR charter signed May 2010 to a directed review of the GPS Interagency Requirements Plan.

For its part, the DoT generally agreed to consider the agency’s recommendation on the interagency requirements process, according to Chaplain, who added that the GAO believes the recommendation remains valid.

The GAO’s report to Congress can be downloaded from the GAO website. The subject will also be on the agenda of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (NCO-PNT) advisory committee at its next meeting October 14–15 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.