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Col. Bernard Gruber, GPS Directorate: Farewell Perspective on GPS Program

June 12, 2013  - By

Colonel Bernard Gruber.

I first met just-pinned-on, shiny and bright, Captain Bernard Gruber-USAF in 1992. Bernie had just arrived at the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base in California where he would hold several important positions.

For those readers not aware of the mission and importance of the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), today SMC, which began in 1954, is the nation’s center of technical expertise for military space acquisition with more than 5,000 employees nationwide and an annual budget of $10 billion.

Bernie’s first association with GPS at SMC was as the chief of User Equipment Production at the then NAVSTAR Global Positioning System Joint Program Office (GPS-JPO). He went on to serve as the program manager for Foreign Military Sales (FMS), working with our allies, and then as the program manager for Advanced Military Devices, which is a euphemism for things we can’t discuss in this venue. All this in a short 40-month time frame, which is almost as long as he has served in his current capacity as the director of the Global Positioning Systems Directorate, now 21 years later. As a young starry-eyed captain, I remember Bernie as energetic, dedicated and full of ideas, which pretty much describes him today as he completes his last active duty assignment and his 26-year U.S. Air Force career draws to a close.

While it may be fair to say that Bernie had some notion of what to expect when he was assigned as the commander of the GPS Wing in 2010, he actually had no idea of all the tremendous and mostly positive changes that would occur to the GPS program under his watch.

I thought it would be fitting to conduct an exit interview with Bernie during his last full month on the job and get his opinion concerning the changes to GPS during his tenure and the probable way ahead for GPS as he turns over the reins.

Don Jewell (DJ):  Colonel Gruber, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. I know you are extremely busy and your time is running short at SMC. Bernie, you have certainly lived the old Chinese adage, also sometimes described as a curse, during your tenure as the GPS Wing Commander and as the director of the GPS Directorate, “May you live in interesting times.” Your tenure has been beset with one major challenge after another and yet you have persevered and — I think this is something for which you will be remembered — you have consistently turned those challenges into opportunities. Let’s discuss some of the opportunities.

294px-Air_Force_Space_Command_Logo.svgCertainly sequestration and budget issues are big topics today. Having come from the Pentagon and having worked on the financial side of GPS, were you surprised by what you found when you took over as the GPS Wing commander? Was it all you expected it to be? The big question seems to be, how is sequestration going to affect the future of the GPS?

Colonel (USAF) Bernard Gruber (BG): Well, Don, certainly budget issues are a key topic today, but let me say before we get started on the questions and answers that I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and your readers at GPS World. As you said in your introduction, these have certainly been interesting times. Some people may call it crazy but they are certainly interesting, nonetheless.

I must say that I was pleasantly surprised how much had changed on the [GPS] program when I came back to SMC, and the changes were really all for the good. It warmed my heart to see the Foreign Military Sales [FMS] office — which I actually started back in 1992 — now has agreements with 55 nations, and military sales continue to increase year-by-year. I was also very happy and surprised to see the SAASM or Selective Availability and Anti-Spoofing Module program, which I was actually the program manager for in its infancy, has now been installed on over one million GPS military receivers — in my estimation this program is protecting warfighters around the globe every single day. I think that is something we can be very proud of together.

The folks in the [GPS] Program Directorate that I have had the good fortune to work with are really something special. They work their hearts out every single day to protect, modernize, and sustain this great system. Also, I continue to be very much amazed that people understand the value of GPS as part of our critical infrastructure. So, my thanks to folks like you, Don, and the folks at GPS World for educating the public on this great utility that we have.

DJ:  Thank you, Bernie, for those kind words. You know we are always happy to serve.

BG: Moving on to the sequestration bill… We are working very hard to reduce our costs and invest in different opportunities that have a return on investment like dual launch [of GPS III — ed.] and NavSat, or I think it is NibbleSat, as you and Dr. Parkinson referred to it in your article from the National Space Symposium, which we look at  as an augmentation to GPS III. That is a good thing because it can significantly reduce total lifecycle costs of the program. So we continue to look at these, amongst other items, that we will prioritize and spend our development dollars on — items such as Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries, smart solar arrays, that allow you to have more efficient use of power, more efficient power amplifiers, that are significantly shrunk down in size from what we have today. Bottom line is we will continue to work on processes that clearly show a positive value stream.

DJ: I would think that one of your bigger, albeit not technical, challenges during your tenure was transitioning the GPS Wing back to an SMC Directorate. Any thoughts about the wisdom of that transition?  Has it affected operations in a positive or negative way, or can you detect a difference? Has it affected the space career field for your military members?

BG: I remember you asking me this very same question back in 2011 during our very first interview, and I wish I remembered [ed. We remember — click the link] what I said back then, but I will give it a shot from where we are, right here, right now (laughs).

General Sheridan, as you very well know, the prior SMC Commander, had actually given me six goals when I got here. The first of those was fix the gap between OCX and GPS III. If you recall, we had about a 15-month gap in the delivery of those items. The second one was he asked me to transfer the AEP and LADO [launch, early orbit, anomaly and disposal operations, now provided by Braxton Technologies] ground segment to our users [the 50th Space Wing] and get that capability to them as soon as we could, so that they could operate it and own it. The third one was fix the IIF production line. The fourth one was to get the MGUE, or military GPS user equipment, back on track and award contracts. The fifth one was build a relationship and continue that relationship with the 50th Space Wing [Schriever AFB, Colorado]. The last one that he actually gave me was to ready the first space vehicle for GPS III through the GNST, which of course is the GPS III Non-Flight Satellite Test Bed and an engineering, manufacturing and development pathfinder for the GPS III program, used to achieve modernization. And, Don, I am happy to say that we as a team have achieved every one of those goals.

Not far behind those goals, Don, General Sheridan followed up with the task of transitioning the Wing back to the Directorate. And as far as I can tell, it has really been seamless. I have to say, though, I really miss the instant recognition that we, as airmen first and then as acquisition professionals, had when we were called Squadrons, Groups and Wings. While I certainly understand that the number of folks that we supervise may have not have justified those titles by themselves, the level of responsibility that we have and my peers have around here certainly did, in my opinion. All around the change has not affected us in any negative way, and I really don’t detect any significant difference resulting from that transition.

DJ:  Bernie, you oversaw the first successful launches of the Boeing-built GPS IIF satellites — a program beset by significant schedule and costs issues. Yet it has evidently become a success under your watch, even though there are still some issues. What are your overall thoughts about the IIF program?

BG: Thank you for that, but I really share this success with many, many other people here at SMC as well as at Team Boeing. The IIF program really and truly has turned a corner. It’s delivering world-class position, navigation and timing (PNT) data right now for users all over the world. Under my watch we had the addition of three IIF satellites actually put into the active constellation today. And although a lot of people may not know it right now, we recently achieved our very best day ever on the 21st of April in terms of accuracy of the GPS signal, with average user range errors (URE) of less than 51 centimeters. That is really astounding! It is better, clearly better, than any PNT system in the entire world today.

So the IIF program, at this point, is focused on closing out the production line and certainly completing those remaining few satellites. We will ready those eight satellites for launch, and then we will support the existing on-constellation needs as they arise.

Now, the nature of space programs is such that technology issues can, of course, creep up on you at any given time. I think we have proven that we can meet those issues head-on and keep the program on track. I could not be prouder of my IIF team very specifically. I very much recall when I first walked into this program office, when we had to actually shut down the IIF production line for over a month. That was a hard thing to do, but it really focused us on closing all the discrepancy reports we had and modeling a very smooth production flow.

So, here we are now with four [GPS-IIFs] on orbit, and five in the barn. As far as I can tell, programmatic and technology challenges have really pretty much been abated to continue to allow world-class spacecraft and mission data as we look forward.

And, Don, let me also add that we successfully transitioned at that time the entire ground segment, the LADO system, which I know you are very familiar with, the systems training system, as well as the data archival system to our operators and partners at the 50th Space Wing, without one single lien.

DJ:  Bernie, what you just told us is very impressive. Accuracy and standardization are critical to GPS program success, and it sounds like you have that well in hand. Of course, the seamless transition of key responsibilities to the 50th Space Wing and 2SOPS (2nd Space Operations Squadron) is to be applauded. Plus, it really appears you have the IIF issues resolved and the GPS III program has become a reality during your tenure. What are your hopes for that program? Do you think the Lockheed Martin built GPS III will truly, as some have predicted, become the first 30-year GPS satellite?

BG: The bottom line is that I sincerely hope that the GPS III program will be a benchmark for future space acquisition programs, both in terms of the high standards that were set for mission assurance, and the level of communication between our program office and the contractor. The GPS III program is entering the very early stages of testing right now on the first flight vehicle, and I anticipate that we will begin to see the program move down that learning curve in very short order. You know with the 15-year design life, which we put in the contract, along with stringent parts requirements and our priority on systems engineering, I really do expect that the GPS III satellites will operate beyond the standards set by the current constellation. And I do have to say that what we call our “back to basics” approach, that other folks have written about, which includes those attributes of strong systems engineering discipline, detailed manufacturing systems readiness reviews, and strict adherence to standards, are actually now showing tangible and documented results. In some cases a 60-percent reduction in our cycle time and a 70-percent reduction in discrepancies for the next delivered items. I think that is huge.

You know, even from an historical perspective, our pathfinder vehicle, which we talked about earlier, called GNST, has taken actually one year out of labor and interference testing from troubleshooting we have seen on two previous programs alone. So we are taking GNST through all the steps the very first GPS III satellite will be exposed to. Then we will ship it down to the Cape [Canaveral] in one month and we should be able to complete our initial and final look at integration and delivery.

DJ: Bernie, so far we have talked mainly about the successes in the space segment, while the future of OCX to many still seems very uncertain, especially in light of the latest GAO report, which had some serious issues of its own. You have been closer to this process than anyone. What are your thoughts? Does OCX have a future? There are rumors there are going to be major changes. Any announcements you would like to make or predict?

BG: The development program for the Next Generation Operational Control System has made significant progress, and has just recently completed a very critical Milestone B approval, in November 2012. As we stand right now, the program is poised to deliver the next-generation GPS space vehicle command and control capability, mainly for GPS III, of course. It will replace our legacy ground [command and control] system and will support legacy and future space vehicles, as well as all the signals that accompany them. The program at this point remains on track to deliver capabilities according to the acquisition program baseline that we set down during the recent milestone.

That said, Don, some of the recent and heavy work of information assurance criteria are extremely rigorous. In fact, they are the most rigorous I have ever seen on any program that I have been involved with. Someone once told me a few months ago, “Bernie, you know you are building an information fortress that just happens to do Command & Control.” So I don’t know if I actually subscribe to that thought, but I think it gets the point across. In today’s cyber-threat environment, we have to do this, and we have to do it right for the protection of GPS.

To give you some confidence in the program, as of today we have actually coded over 98 percent of the Block Zero system, which is the basis for launching and commanding the basic GPS III constellation and, of course, the first vehicle. And we followed that up with two very significant exercises to provide telemetry and an integrated planning system. In July, we will actually go forth with our third exercise itself. In fact, I just got off the phone with the team a few minutes ago, to exercise what we call off-nominal behavior. Those are different types of test plans we have to go through just in case something in the system goes wrong.

What that means, Don, is if something does not go according to plan, what we do is we inject faults into the system and other types of non-nominal behavior, and then we see if we can do recovery actions and how the command and control system will actually fix it and correct it. This ensures the operators will have the tools to fix it.

So, Don, as kind of an overview, along with what we call the complete authority to test the documentation that is in place right now and the conclusion, which we recently had, of our third critical design review, I think we are on our way. We will be challenged along the way, there is no doubt about that, but we are looking forward to achieving our full capability with Block One. [ed. OCX Block RTO currently scheduled to be delivered in Q1 2017.]

DJ: Bernie, that is great news for those who are worried about the future and viability of OCX. It is good to know you still see a way ahead. Now we have covered the three main segments of the program, but there are still concerns over the initial acquisition process and how that plays out over time. Certainly in your career you have been steeped in Air Force and DoD acquisition programs for years, which is a process many in government describe as a process in need of a major overhaul. What are your thoughts? How could we, the government, the USAF, do things differently? Any solutions or cogent thoughts?

BG: Sure, off the record! No, seriously, I have indeed been involved in acquisitions for a long time now, and let me just say that is a great question and it is certainly deserving of a much, much longer answer than I have time to provide for you here today. As a matter of fact, I have written a couple of papers on the subject of acquisition reform in the past, and I have been involved with three very significant studies in Defense Acquisition University (DAU) as well as one of our nation’s premier think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

But, in my opinion, there is a lot we can do, so let me just capture a couple of thoughts here. The first one, and I  have noted this one many time before, is funding  and requirements stability, both in what we call the program stages and execution stage of the program, is just paramount. That said, I fully realize with sequestration and budget control measures that we cannot control budget releases from Congress, cuts or changes. But it really does create an incredible burden on our ability to deliver systems on time. The second is one is to look seriously at decentralizing execution. As has been cited in many studies before, whether those be “Beyond Goldwater-Nichols” or the DAPA Study (Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment) that some people call the General Kadish study, it is easy for anyone along the long chain of acquisition approvals to say no or to add another layer of documentation or to change, but the ripple effect of doing that as well as what it does to the system is just overwhelming.

And I will say that as our Air Force Space Command commander (AFSPC/CC), someone who I know both you and I respect very deeply, General William Shelton, often says, “You know these times come with great opportunities and we need to seize upon them.” I couldn’t agree more with him.

DJ: Colonel Gruber, I assume you have had at least a few moments in your hectic schedule to reflect on your tenure at SMC and the GPS Directorate, so as we wind down today, can you describe your high and low points in the job? Would you in hindsight do anything differently?

BG: I think that is a great question, and I will say in all sincerity that there have actually been very few low points on this job, but there have been a couple. As you know, it has been frustrating for me to see civilian funding on GPS not come to closure. We have taken very large cuts over the last couple of years, and I am really not sure that the future is any more certain. I am not sure where we stand right now. This has a combined effect of increasing risk and potentially delaying the OCX program capabilities. Also, I was disappointed, quite frankly, to not be postured adequately to get a multi-year buy for the GPS III satellite system this time around for satellite vehicle nine and out. I truly believe that we can greatly reduce our costs through stable production line, an increased learning curve, correct incentives, and a large block buy. I really think we are going to get there, but I would really liked to have gotten this done before my successor, Colonel William “Bill” Cooley, arrives here in about a month.

As far as the high points go, Don, there are literally hundreds — seeing our folks get promoted, supporting the community activities here at Los Angeles Air Force Base, and of course the mission successes that we have enjoyed. These include, of course, the recent and successful launch of the IIF-SV4 on the 15th of May. Increasing the dependability of the GPS ground segment, and that is an actual measure, to 99.34 percent, which, by the way, is the best it has ever been in the history of the program. Awarding new contracts for on-orbit support and ground contracts that have reduced our contract costs by almost 50 percent. Another one is locking in three vendors to be able to build the next generation of GPS [ed. military] user equipment, and of course the achievements of the SMC commitments that I mentioned earlier and those that General Pawlikowski [SMC Commander] have laid out for us for the future.

So, in the big scheme of things, I am not sure that I would have done anything different, but the truth is, Don, it might take a little bit more reflection on my part, and I might answer that differently sometime in the future. But for right now I feel very confident with what we have done and very proud of what the team has taken forward with me.

DJ: Colonel Gruber I want to thank you very much for your time today, for your dedication to the GPS mission and for your service to your nation over the last 26 years. Now, this is your opportunity for a parting message and a chance to fill us in on what your future holds.

BG: I am not sure I have a parting message for you. Truth be told, leaving this program, the people in it and the great service our country provides through GPS is going to be hard to do. My three years is up, and I will be retiring from the USAF after 26 years of service. It has been a great ride. I applaud the efforts of you and your readers, our contractors, our government employees, and our international partners, of course, who continue to overcome adversity and invent new applications and services for GPS. But most of all, Don, I really want to thank the men and women who serve in deployed regions of the world. They are putting their lives on the line every single day. We owe it to them to have this system to be able to support them, anytime and anyplace.

And as to my future  — I actually leave the Air Force with a smile on my face, it has been a great ride. After many discussions with my family, we are heading back to our roots in Minnesota. My wife and I are very fortunate to be able to make the decision to spend time with our parents and our families and relatives back home in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.

DJ:  Well, Bernie, I am totally surprised. I don’t think I ever heard you say, “ja shure, you bet, you know” once in all the years I have known you.

BG: Ya know, Don, I can really lay it on pretty thick when you need me to, ya know. [ed. Saying this, Bernie sounds exactly like an extra in the movie Fargo.] But seriously, we are going to spend some time with family and take it easy for awhile, and then I will explore future opportunities.

And with that comment, we wish Colonel Gruber the best of luck in the future. That’s a wrap for this month. Next month we will review some of the latest and best user equipment for our warfighters, government users, and critical first responders. So until next time, happy navigating.