Interview: 2nd Space Operations Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Jennifer Grant

December 14, 2011  - By
December is typically the month when writers of regularly featured columns wax nostalgic and engage in a certain amount of prognostication. This year I enlisted the help of Lt. Col. Jennifer Grant, the 2SOPS/CC at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, to help us with our year-end review and crystal-ball gazing as we look ahead to the GPS horizon. Lt. Col. Grant reminisces about her first 16 months as 2SOPS/CC, reviews numerous major accomplishments, and updates us on the status of the GPS constellation as well as the often overlooked, ever contentious and always seemingly in flux critical Command and Control (C2) segment.


By way of introduction, I first met Lt. Col. Grant when she was assigned to the Command Suite at Headquarters Air Force Space Command at Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and served under the four-star commander General Robert Kehler, who is now the commander of USSTRATCOM (United States Strategic Command). At the time she impressed me as being intelligent and insightful. Her professional reputation as a perfectionist certainly supported that assessment. The next time I met Jennifer, we were both wearing different hats and serving in different roles.

Several of us on the GPS Independent Review Team (GPS-IRT) were sent by General Kehler to Schriever AFB to check in with the new 2SOPS/CC and see if we could offer her any assistance. This is a role we, the IRT, have played many times in the past, and just like the old saw concerning Inspector General (IG) visits, our mantra was and is “…we are only here to help…that’s our story and we are sticking to it.” Regardless of the perception or even trepidation over our visit, Jennifer and her staff were extremely supportive and it was abundantly clear that Lt. Col. Grant was drinking from a fire hose and doing more than surviving. She actually seemed to be handling it well and possibly even enjoying herself. While she was not new to Space Command, she was new to the GPS.

More than a year later, I and another IRT member paid Lt. Col. Grant another official visit and the transformation was nothing short of amazing. Did I fail to mention that she is also known as a quick study? In 16 months’ time Jennifer went from the new kid on the block in GPS operations to a sophisticated, erudite, extremely knowledgeable and passionate advocate and supporter of the GPS and all aspects of 2SOPS operations.

Recently she stood toe-to-toe in a meeting with the same GPS-IRT members that visited her 16 months ago and proved without a doubt that she has matured as a commander and GPS operator beyond our wildest imaginations. To her credit she is not intimidated by titles, rank or history. She knows her job. She walks the talk and will not hesitate to challenge anyone, although very politely and with a smile, who is not totally accurate and fair in his or her assessment of GPS operations yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Like any good commander, she is totally and relentlessly supportive of her command and her people. However, she is pragmatic enough to know that changes, and big ones, are on the horizon. At the same time she realizes that she commands not only the largest and most well-known military space constellation on orbit today, but also one that supports the entire planet’s critical infrastructures with crucial timing, frequency, position and navigation information. GPS has become the de facto time and time frequency distribution system for the world we live in today. There are more than two billion known users worldwide, and that conservatively equates to more than 5 billion GPS receivers. Indeed, given the number of stealth GPS receivers in almost every appliance we use today, that number could easily grow to more than 10 billion. No stress there!

When I called Lt. Col. Grant about a follow-up IRT visit and mentioned that an interview might also be in order, she replied that she would get right on that as soon as she spent Thanksgiving with her family. Imagine that, she actually took a day off. In the real world she seems to balance being a wife, mother and commander of the world’s most visible satellite constellation with a maturity beyond her years.

Now that we have peeled back the curtain just a bit, let’s see what Lt. Col. Jennifer Grant has to say about the Global Positioning System and PNT in general.

DJ: Don Jewell, GPS World Defense Editor
JG: Lt. Col. Jennifer Grant, 2SOPS Commander 

DJ: What can you tell us about your first year as the 2SOPS/CC?  What makes you happy about your command job and GPS specifically?

JG: Don, my time as the new 2SOPS/CC has really passed quickly! Commanding the largest DoD satellite constellation is both humbling and invigorating. It is amazing to look back over the past year and recount our accomplishments as a team: I accepted satellite control authority of the first two GPS IIF satellites; we completed the largest satellite repositioning in history with expandable-24; we successfully completed two major test exercises involving demonstrations of flex power and SA/ASM (Selective Availability and Anti-Spoofing Module), respectfully; we successfully completed the largest major software sustainment installation, AEP 5.7.0 [ed. Architecture Evolution Plan]; we flawlessly executed two operation mission transfers to our back-up (Command & Control) location; we’ve completed dozens of station-keeping maneuvers; we’ve resolved on-orbit anomalies and sustained the constellation of satellites which have outlived their estimated design life — and celebrated the 21st birthday of SVN-23, our oldest IIA satellite on orbit. We’ve also disposed of SVN-24 and are preparing for the disposal of SVN-30. Our GPS Operations Center (GPSOC) has provided 75,000+ products to our mission planners and warfighters down range, and we have seen the implementation of our GPS Google Earth tool.

On the personnel front, we were part of the team, along with 19SOPS and SMC — Space and Missile Systems Center, awarded the USAF Chief of Staff Team Excellence Award (CSTEA) in Washington, D.C., for the GPS IIF Launch; and we were part of the past and present GPS team of personnel earning the International Aerospace Federation’s 60th Anniversary Award for excellence in aerospace. General Shelton accepted this award in Johannesburg, South Africa, on behalf of the U.S. Air Force contributions to the GPS. We have also achieved the most accurate signal-in-space in our history, far surpassing the office of the Secretary of Defense, Standard Positioning Service Performance Standard requirement of seven meters!

2SOPS, with assistance from our reserve mission partner, 19SOPS, supports more than two billion position, navigation and timing (PNT) users worldwide. The work we do every day and the mission we execute supports critical infrastructure, life-saving missions and worldwide operations.

100820-F-1631A-028 . Headshot: Lt. Col. Jennifer Grant

Lt. Col. Grant speaks at the change of command ceremony in August 2010,
when she took over command of 2SOPS.

In short, Don, I love my job — and I have the sharpest, best and brightest team of personnel employed to execute these tasks. I am amazed every day at the level of proficiency and professionalism demonstrated by our Total Force team of active duty, reservists, aerospace engineers, contractors and government personnel. Our team has managed and maintained the position, navigation and timing gold standard and will continue to do so.

Making a difference in the lives of people gives me a great deal of personal and professional satisfaction. We are not doing our jobs right if we are not making the world a better place…one contact at a time, be it people or payloads.

DJ: Can you give us a status of GPS as a system of systems, to include ground control, monitoring and the on-orbit constellation? Give us, if you will, a status brief of where GPS stands today, including SVN-49. And, since you are known for being precise when you speak about GPS matters, can you please answer using the nomenclature we should all use when we refer to the various segments of the GPS?

JG: Absolutely, Don! The GPS constellation is the most robust and capable system in the history of space.  We currently have 30 actively engaged operational satellites on orbit (9 GPS IIAs, 12 GPS IIRs, 7 GPS IIR-Ms and 2 GPS IIFs). We maintain a program baseline minimum 24-satellite constellation consisting of six orbital planes each containing four primary satellite slots. Our four dedicated ground antennas and six monitoring stations are working as intended, and our MCS (Master Control Station) at Schriever AFB as well as our AMCS (Alternate Master Control Station) at Vandenberg AFB are both fully functional.

On 15 June 2011, we completed expansion of a total of three primary slots, which added 3 satellites into our current baseline and enables us to optimize GPS assets to improve operational effectiveness for global users and warfighters in terrain-challenged areas.

Currently, there are 30 satellites set healthy to users, and a 31st satellite, a GPS IIA, will be set healthy on 16 December 2011. We have one satellite awaiting disposal and three remaining satellites in residual status. Each of the three remaining residual satellites are in LADO, which is our unique Launch/Early Orbit, Anomaly Resolution, Disposal, and Operations system. One of the residual satellites is SVN-49, and they will all be tested and checked out for determination of future use and viability as a long-term operational decision.

DJ: Those of us who have been Squadron Commanders know there are persistent problems in any organization that just won’t go away, be they programmatic, operational or personnel issues. What is it that keeps you up at night?

JG: Thankfully, Don, I am a sound sleeper with peace of mind, so not much!  But really, one of the main responsibilities we manage is maintenance and sustainment of the GPS constellation, and the older the satellites in the constellation get, the more care and feeding they require. Right now, about a third of our constellation has exceeded its satellite design life by 100% — satellites designed to last 7.5 years are between 15 and 21 years old. So we have invested a great deal of time into contingency planning in the event of component failures, multiple vehicle anomalies, etc. We are doing everything we can to continue to extend the lives of our satellites, and it is a tribute to engineering, design and the satellite builders as well as the expert sustainment operations and engineering that they have lasted as long as they have.

We need to ensure our replenishment launches for the current generation IIF vehicles stay on schedule and a priority.

DJ: Would you give us your view and hopefully the MAJCOMs view of the way ahead for GPS as it supports military, civil and commercial users around the globe? Look forward to the future for us — how do you see GPS operations evolving in the years ahead?

JG: Don, the Air Force is constantly being asked to do more with less — resources, manpower and time.  In this fiscally constrained environment we are being challenged to find effective and efficient ways to accomplish our mission. We have come a long way from the legacy systems in improving our operations, and I think we will see even more improvements in increased automation, faster satellite contact times, and increased downlink capabilities, as well as streamlined operations.

We will also, I believe, see an increased need for interaction and interoperability with our international position, navigation and timing providers and consumers. GPS, though still the largest PNT provider, is no longer the only game in town.

Although the GPS satellite constellation is procured and operated by the US Air Force, we understand we support a much broader user community in the civil, commercial and military sectors. We take pride in providing extremely accurate PNT services to billions of users worldwide.

And we are spending considerable resources to modernize the GPS constellation to provide even better service in the future. The continued fielding of new GPS IIF satellites and GPS control segment software updates are key to current modernization efforts. GPS III satellites and the Next Generation Control System (OCX) will further enhance GPS capabilities. Fully compliant user equipment is essential as modernization efforts continue.

We’ll continue to improve our constellation with the launches of new satellites; the next GPS IIF is scheduled to launch in September of 2012 and the first GPS III should be available for launch in FY 2014. And OCX remains on-track for a Ready-To-Operate (RTO) date in 2015.

DJ: And finally, if you were Queen for a Day, what would you like to see changed?

JG: For operators, there is always an interest in and a desire for greater capability, faster processing…and for us it is in pushing the envelope for even greater accuracy with precision timing, position and navigation.

There is also an interest in expanding application of our NAVWAR (Navigation Warfare) knowledge, application and operations — having an even greater number of people trained and embedded with warfighters as NAVWAR experts. This is where I think we will see some real growth in the future.

DJ: Colonel Grant, I know you are incredibly busy and I can’t thank you enough for your time, your expertise and the look ahead to the future of GPS. Best of luck in all your future endeavors.

Editor’s Note: I have visited the 2SOPS more than 20 times in the past five years, and I have known and visited every 2SOPS commander since that organization began to include then Lt. Col. and now General William Shelton, the four-star AFSPC/CC. I have never seen a more motivated GPS crew force than the one I saw during my last visit with Lt. Col. Grant. Squadrons tend to reflect the work ethic, mores and integrity of their commander, and my hat is off to Lt. Col. Jennifer Grant because her crews are obviously very motivated to support the warfighter, and they seem very happy in their jobs. The atmosphere in 2SOPS these days is positive, upbeat and very customer (that’s you and me) oriented. Plus, many of the crewmembers are just back from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, so they know the needs of the warfighter and they are working hard to fulfill them.
Till next time, happy holidays and happy navigating.

About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.