Directions 2017: GPS navigates the future

December 2, 2016  - By

I’m proud to be a part of the accomplishments of the men and women of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Global Positioning System Directorate at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California. The year has been extremely challenging, but looking back on 2016, we have taken real steps forward to modernize the GPS Enterprise and the way we do business. I’d like to share some of our major accomplishments (see “2016 Accomplishments” below) and challenges, and provide some insights for 2017 and beyond.


Col. Steven Whitney. (Photo: USAF)

Civil Partnerships

While much of our focus is on military capabilities, GPS is a global utility with very strong ties to the civil community. The same principles of transparency and communication are cornerstones of our relationships with the various stakeholders.

One example of this is our work with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation, where the safety-of-life applications are a key element of our discussions. To ensure a transparent, communication-rich relationship, we hold quarterly program management reviews with these organizations and their stakeholders.

The GPS Directorate continues to actively participate on a number of committees, such as the Civil GPS Service Interface Committee, that are key to maintaining ties to our civil stakeholders and ensuring that we have an effective flow of information both to and from the Directorate.

We are currently engaged in the DOT-led Adjacent Band Compatibility study, initiated by the National Space-Based PNT Executive Committee. This year will see the culmination of the effort to determine power levels from potential future adjacent-band sources that are compatible with existing and evolving GPS receivers, and serve as a foundation to determine power levels compatible with evolving GPS/GNSS receivers.

This study exemplifies our strong ties with the greater GPS community, as well as my push for the Directorate’s efforts to be as transparent as possible, execute data-driven decisions, and be guided by widely accepted international standards.

Space Segment

A key milestone occurred Feb. 5, 2016, with the launch of our 12th and final GPS IIF satellite. This marked the end of an extremely successful GPS IIF launch campaign and our most aggressive launch schedule in the last 20+ years: eight successful launches in 24 months!

The addition of the GPS IIF satellites to the constellation enabled the system to reach its best performance day ever on May 11, 2016, achieving 36.5-centimeter accuracy in average user range error.

Col. Whitney with the Green Monster, mascot of the U.S. Air Force GPS Directorate.

Col. Whitney with the Green Monster, mascot of the U.S. Air Force GPS Directorate. (Photo: USAF)

Moving over to our next generation GPS III satellites, SV-01 continues to make steady progress. In August, the team executed successful functional and physical configuration audits with Lockheed Martin, completing a key task on the road to achieving our available for launch (AFL) date. The AFL declaration signifies completion of production activities, and allows initiation of the Mission Readiness Campaign for launch upon Air Force direction.

As we march towards AFL, we are tackling several technical challenges, including a capacitor issue discovered during our investigation of SV-03 flight hardware tests. This capacitor is used in many places throughout the navigation payload. Our investigation uncovered inadequate qualification processes by a major subcontractor. Exercising due diligence, the Air Force is now verifying both the build quality of the entire capacitor manufacturing process and production lot via additional capacitor qualification life testing. This activity delayed our AFL until December 2016, approximately a four-month delay from our previous forecast.

The program is also working to solve several other technical challenges as we progress to completion. SV-01 testing uncovered electro-magnetic interference between a payload component and a hosted payload. Testing also uncovered electron impact issues on the L-band antenna elements. In partnership with Lockheed Martin, the program developed corrective action and design mitigations for both of these issues and is implementing these steps within our production flow for all the SVs. Of course, all these issues together have led to increased cost and contributed to delays in final delivery.

In the coming year, SV-02, the second GPS III satellite, will also be progressing towards completing production. Currently, all of the SV-02 sub-assemblies have been received by Lockheed Martin and are being integrated into the spacecraft. The next major step in the production flow for SV-02 will be to mate it with its propulsion core.

Recently, we completed negotiations with Lockheed Martin to extend the production line with purchases of SV-09 and SV-10. These satellites will be technically equivalent to SV-01 through SV-08. This $395 million purchase of two satellites marks a significant affordability milestone for the procurement of GPS III satellites.

Looking ahead, we are analyzing how to acquire satellites beyond SV-10. We are executing a phased strategy which starts first with determining the viability of a GPS III production design existing beyond the current contractor. We awarded an initial phase of contracts to the Boeing Company, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, and Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in May 2016 to provide a feasibility assessment of the readiness of their satellites designs. In this phase, the contractors will provide a GPS III production design, manufacturing plans and a navigation payload brassboard test report, along with manufacturing/production processes and facilities maturity.

We are also collaborating closely on an Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate activity, the On-orbit Reprogrammable Digital Waveform Generator program, as an opportunity for the three contractors to develop advanced GPS L-band navigation signal processing capabilities in a smaller, more efficient package. This effort could potentially provide future satellites enhanced security in contested environments, more capable signal generation, and additional GPS waveforms to meet the growing needs of both military and civilian users.

Looking further ahead, the second phase is envisioned to be a full and open competition with contract awards starting in 2018. Contractors will be required to deliver the first satellite in time to support constellation sustainment commitments.

Control Segment

Our Control Segment consists of both OCX and our existing Operational Control Segment at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. The OCX program has struggled with many challenges through the years, producing a cost and schedule growth on OCX that exceeded the prescribed thresholds — in our case, a 25 percent cost growth against the approved Program Baseline.

I notified the Secretary of the Air Force on June 14 of this development, and on June 30 the Air Force declared a critical Nunn-McCurdy breach on the OCX program. The Nunn-McCurdy process is a mechanism for Congress to maintain oversight of DoD programs and requires the Office of the Secretary of Defense to conduct a review leading to a decision to either certify as critical to National Security or terminate the program.

The GPS Directorate and Raytheon, the OCX prime contractor, worked closely with teams conducting this in-depth, comprehensive review. The result was determined on Oct. 12 that OCX is essential to national security that no alternatives exist to meet requirements at less cost, remaining costs for the restructured program are reasonable and a higher priority than programs whose funding must be reduced to accommodate the growth, and management structure for the program is adequate.

With the review behind us, our challenge is to move forward with a stronger, healthier, more focused OCX program. To accomplish this, we are focused on several major areas: stronger systems engineering practices, establishing a single common hardware/environments baseline, greater software installation automation, and implementing industry standard software development processes.

One of our first milestones next year will be the delivery and deployment of OCX Block 0 in the summer of 2017. Block 0 is the GPS III Launch and Checkout System and provides a subset of the full OCX capabilities needed to launch the GPS III satellites and perform early on-orbit spacecraft bus checkout.

This delivery starts the drive for our inaugural launch of GPS III SV-01 in the spring of 2018. Raytheon completed two Block 0 key milestones since March 2016, and is now in formal qualification testing before it is deployed to operations early next year. The next year will see OCX development focused on Block 1. It provides the Initial Operating Capability to command and control all GPS satellites and enable the PNT mission, including the international L1C signal and advanced M-code features and capabilities.

Because OCX Block 0 is not designed to control the GPS III navigation payload, we are modifying the existing OCS to control GPS III satellites under Contingency Operations, or COps. COps will allow operation of the GPS III satellites launched prior to OCX Block 1 delivery in 2021, and provides the Air Force the ability to fly GPS III satellites at a capability level commensurate to a GPS IIF.

Our COps program has made good progress, completing its Preliminary Design Review last May and successfully passed Milestone B in September. COps is on track to hold its Critical Design Review in November, with delivery planned for the spring of 2019. We are exploring other potential OCS modifications to hedge against further delays in OCX.

Our OCS sustainment team in Colorado Springs recently completed the largest system update in program history. This update is part of our focus to refresh and bolster the cyber posture of the GPS architecture, and modernize the GPS control segment mission servers and hosted commercial software. These upgrades will protect against infiltration of cyber threats and enable improved data traffic logging for network situational awareness to protect this global utility.

User Equipment Segment

Like our other segments, our User Equipment segment had a very challenging but successful year. The MGUE program has worked steadily with our entire industry team, L-3 Communications, Raytheon, and Rockwell-Collins, to complete and test MGUE Increment 1 production prototypes. These Final Test Articles, or FTAs, started delivering this summer and are now capable of acquiring and actively tracking live-sky M-code. With the initial risk reduction testing phase complete, the Directorate will now use the FTAs to perform MGUE developmental testing and verification and hardware qualification testing.

The L-3 design was also the first on our program team to achieve security certification this October, which marks the very first security-certified M-code receiver card. This not only validates the L-3 design and production, it also validates the GPS security certification process, an enduring function for the Directorate in working with industry. This certification also leads the way for the product to be available to a wide variety of users across the DoD.

While progress in MGUE has been significant, creating the next-generation of secure, anti-jam, anti-spoof receivers has been more time-consuming and costly than expected. The drive to support warfighter needs for greater performance drives a diverse set of requirements across the DoD. The Air Force made a concerted effort to improve the resiliency of the MGUE receivers, adding complexity to the program. Combined, these challenges have led to extended delivery schedules for the program.

In the coming years, the MGUE team will lead efforts to integrate MGUE cards into four lead DoD platforms: the Air Force’s B-2 bomber, the Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the Army’s Distributed Defense Advanced GPS Receiver Device for the Stryker armored fighting vehicle, and the Marine Corps’ Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.

The four lead platforms provide pathfinder integrations and operational testing for the entire DoD community as we move into the modernized GPS era. The program office has already been working closely with the B-2 Program Office and the Joint Service System Management Office in fielding an M-code capable flight prototype Miniaturized Airborne GPS Receiver.

We have worked jointly on this first lead platform integration effort to field the first ever MGUE receiver integration into a higher order prototype unit. These efforts yielded tremendous integration insights. Prototype lab testing demonstrated live-sky tracking of C/A, Y and M-codes; testing of MGUE connected with a new B-2 flight antenna; and culminating in the first end-to-end demonstration of M-code capability.

In 2017, the GPS Directorate will set the acquisition strategy and plan forward for the MGUE Increment 2 program, addressing our long-term strategy for Application Specific Integrated Circuits, as well as meeting the needs of future platforms such as precision guided munitions, space receivers, and a modernized GPS handheld.

The Space Enterprise Vision

Earlier this year, General John Hyten, former commander of Air Force Space Command, announced the Space Enterprise Vision. The SEV is the result of an AFSPC study that looked at ensuring national security space capabilities in a contested environment, with an emphasis on improved resiliency. In the PNT mission area, there are many ways to provide greater resiliency in-line with General Hyten’s SEV. One that we are leaning forward and looking very hard at is multi-GNSS possibilities.

At the recent Institute of Navigation conference, many presenters noted that for the consumer market, the multi-GNSS era has already begun. Potential incorporation of non-GPS signals into military user equipment is still under review, but certainly offers the possibility of improving resilience to jamming, spoofing, and operations in obstructed terrain. The broader GPS community is developing approaches to assess multi-GNSS integrity, and we are working with those community members to evaluate the potential impacts to our GPS architecture, especially the ground.

Another resiliency initiative we are participating in is a DOT-led effort known as Advanced Receiver Autonomous Integrity Monitoring backed by PNT experts from the labs and academia. Once the technical aspects are well understood and the policy decisions are made, the GPS Directorate will be well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity.


2016 has been a very challenging and successful year. Looking forward into 2017 and beyond, we have numerous challenges across all segments of the Enterprise — OCX, GPS III, and MGUE — to deliver a modernized architecture. The men and women of the GPS Directorate and our Industry partners are truly some of the hardest working people I have ever had the opportunity to work with. It is their passion and dedication that has allowed us to continue to deliver the Gold Standard. It is my honor to serve with, and for, them.

2016 Accomplishments

gps-ocx-raytheon-200x150Our GPS Next-Generation Operational Control System, or OCX program, received the majority of the press attention this year. OCX has struggled to overcome information assurance challenges, as well as poor systems engineering processes and planning from the outset of the program. The cost and schedule growth triggered a rigorous review by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The outcome, we believe, will be a restructured, more executable program that is implementing stronger systems engineering practices and industry-standard software development processes.  We still have a ways to go to be successful, but realize we must deliver the capability to command our GPS satellites and will continue to explore programmatic off-ramps should the OCX program falter.

The past year also saw us bring to a close the GPS IIF production and deployment activities with the successful launch of our 12th and final GPS IIF satellite. Our GPS constellation remains healthy, stable and robust with 31 operational space vehicles: 12 GPS IIR, seven GPS IIR-M, and 12 GPS IIF.

We ushered in the GPS III era with the completion of Space Vehicle-01 thermal vacuum testing late in 2015 in an unprecedented 72 days. We have, however, uncovered several technical issues challenging our availability for launch. As we ready SV-01, a tremendous effort is ongoing to fully investigate and exonerate these issues to ensure our satellites deliver the capabilities you’ve come to expect from the Gold Standard.

This year our partners in the Launch Enterprise Directorate awarded a GPS III launch services contract to the Space Exploration Technology Corporation, or SpaceX — their first National Security Space System launch.

Finally, our Military GPS User Equipment (MGUE) program delivered its first set of Military Code compliant production prototypes for developmental testing and integration. Just as significant, the MGUE program granted the first-ever full security certification to contractor L-3 Communications. These major GPS modernization milestones are successful initial steps, but the progress in delivering the most secure, anti-jam, anti-spoof GPS receivers ever has taken longer than expected, and a great deal of work lies ahead.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the year’s accomplishments and challenges, but it demonstrates that we are continuing to modernize the GPS system and maintain transparency on our commitments.

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About the Author: Col. Steven Whitney

Director, Global Positioning Systems Directorate