Is America’s GPS Service in Jeopardy?

As America’s GPS satellites continue to progressively fail right along with the Air Force’s efforts to replace them, the GAO fears there are serious issues looming.  Specifically, can the government acquire new satellites in enough time to maintain the existing GPS applications needed for military, car navigation and other civilian uses?

Over the Budget and Behind Schedule

203606-main_fullOther than deploying GPS for military use, the United States government also provides GPS service free of change and has plans to invest nearly $6 billion over the next five years in new satellites and ground control segments.  The U.S. Department of Defense currently provides the majority of the funding for the Global Positioning System, while the Air Force is responsible for its acquisition and modernization.

As of now, the United States has 31 GPS satellites in orbit, all of which are grouped in a cluster better known as a constellation.  It is reported that the existing block upgrade of satellites has exceeded its initial estimated cost of $720 million by a dramatic $870 million!  To make matters worse, it is said that the block will be completed three years behind schedule.

In the GPS report, the GAO states that if the Air Force fails to meet its scheduled goals for development of GPS IIIA satellites, the likelihood that the old satellites will fail by 2010 would increase.  Therefore, the overall constellation would also fall below the number of satellites needed to deliver the level of satellite navigation service to which the U.S. government has committed.

In addition to projecting that a significant delay in the program could result in a deterioration of the constellation in the next two years, the GAO reports that these delays might also reduce the constellation to a mere 18 satellites before a full recovery is achieved by 2020.  The GAO outlined a scenario in an additional analysis, one in which if the GPS block suffers a two year delay, the chance of maintaining a full service constellation would start to drop considerably in October of 2013, showing that it could possibly go as low as 10% by 2018.

Internal Conflict

Representative John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, has gone on the record to blame the probable lag in the GPS upgrade on the Department of Defense’s contracting rules, saying that the contractor could not successfully execute the job due to time or budget restraints.   He stated that what was supposed to be an effort to streamline the acquisition process turned out to be a lack of oversight and control by the Department of Defense and Air Force.  Tierney added that the president’s 2010 fiscal budget terminates funding for the LORAN, the primary GPS backup system.  This gives indication that both the DOD and Air Force are in a rather precarious position because of the looming gap.

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