Directions 2019: GPS program looks toward GPS III launch

December 4, 2018  - By
Col. Steve Whitney stands beside a statue of General Schriever at Los Angeles Air Force Base, home of the GPS Directorate. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Joseph Juarez, Sr.)

Col. Steve Whitney stands beside a statue of General Schriever at Los Angeles Air Force Base, home of the GPS Directorate. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Joseph Juarez, Sr.)

By Col. Steven Whitney
Director, Global Positioning Systems Directorate

Navigating across the world’s roads with GPS is easy. Navigating through the shifting construction zones, detours, and forks of the GPS Enterprise is not always so straightforward.

For that reason, the GPS Directorate has placed more emphasis on illustrating, both figuratively and literally, the roadmaps leading to the integration of the GPS Enterprise.

Before linking everything together, let’s start with an update on each major program effort. This way you can zoom out to see the path ahead; hopefully minimizing any “route recalculating” along the way.

Program Updates

The journey to build the new GPS III satellites has been full of twists and turns but we are now close to our destination – in this case the GPS orbit of 12,550 miles above the Earth.

We not only have 10 GPS III Space Vehicles simultaneously in production at Lockheed Martin’s manufacturing facility in Waterton, Colorado, but are also going full swing on preparations to launch our first vehicle in December 2018 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – more on this later. The GPS III satellites provide signals designed to improve the user’s ability to navigate.

In addition to the increased power and greater accuracy, GPS III adds a civil new signal, L1C, designed for compatibility with the international Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) community.

GPS IIIF. In September 2018, the Air Force awarded the GPS III Follow-on contract to Lockheed Martin. This $7.2B contract for 22 satellites was the result of a competitive process for a production effort. Based on the GPS III technical baseline, the GPS IIIF family of satellites embraces modernization and capability improvements in multiple areas.

First, a Regional Military Protection capability will provide increased anti-jam capabilities. Furthermore, a new Search-and-Rescue (SAR/GPS) payload will provide improved timeliness of global search-and-rescue operations. Additionally, a Laser Retro-reflector Array (LRA) payload will enable precise ranging measurements and the program will implement a Unified S-Band capability to address consolidation of telemetry, tracking, and commanding frequencies.

Finally, the program will host a redesigned Nuclear Detonation (NUDET) Detection System (NDS) solution that has a lower overall size and weight. We look forward to the continued partnership with Lockheed Martin and will be looking collaboratively at opportunities to add additional capabilities incrementally over the life of the 22 GPS IIIF satellite production line.

OCX, the Next Generation Operational Control Segment. Last year Raytheon delivered the initial system, known as OCX Block 0, to support the launch and on-orbit check-out of the GPS III satellites. This past year, we have actively utilized the system in a variety of exercises, training events, compatibility tests, and launch readiness events.

We also completed a comprehensive security review of the system to demonstrate our readiness to start operations. The system is ready to go. We continue to work the development of the OCX Block 1 system and are wrapping up the initial coding of the system early in 2019, leading into our integration and test campaign.

The journey over the past few years has been challenging, but we have emerged stronger, armed with better metrics, and a culture of integrated development (often called DevOps) which puts us on a path to success. There will be challenges and risks in the path ahead but rather than mountains to climb, I see these more as standard blocking and tackling of a software intensive program.

Col. Whitney next to an artist's depiction of a GPS III satellite in orbit. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Van Ha)

Col. Whitney next to an artist’s depiction of a GPS III satellite in orbit. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Van Ha)

Legacy Ground Sustainment. Running in parallel to these modernization efforts is the all-important work to sustain our existing GPS infrastructure of our current Operational Control System (OCS). These sustainment efforts ensure GPS continues to be the gold standard in positioning, navigation, and timing but also are a crucial “on-ramp” to facilitate a smooth merge onto the modernized GPS capabilities.

Since 2014, the GPS program office has incrementally implemented several upgrades that not only maintain our satellite constellation delivery of GPS signal-in-space accuracy of 50 cm, but also significantly increases the cybersecurity posture of the legacy OCS.

These upgrades culminated with a deployment of the latest modification in October 2018, which finished a worldwide modernization of our entire control system hardware and software. This latest upgrade, known as Version 7.5, virtualized the network, implemented two-factor authentication, and improved encryption for mission data.

Legacy Ground Improvements. Given the delays in OCX, the Directorate is actively working two major upgrades to OCS to bridge the gap. The first is GPS III Contingency Operations (COps) modification which will allow the 2nd Space Operations Squadron (2SOPS) to command and control the GPS III family of vehicles in a mission state matching today’s legacy signals for all users world-wide. The second modification is M-Code Early Use, which enables 2SOPS to operationalize the Modernized GPS military signals (M-Code) navigation signals for the warfighter.

User Equipment. As I write this article, soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen are testing and integrating mature, next-generation GPS receiver cards providing more accurate and reliable position, navigation, and timing (PNT) solutions. In 2019, the first increment of Military GPS User Equipment (MGUE) is on track to complete card-level testing to inform Service procurement strategies.

This exciting work is the culmination of nearly two decades of modernization efforts throughout the GPS Enterprise. In the near term, we are utilizing M-Code capable lead platforms ­— USAF B-2 Bomber, USMC Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, USN Arleigh-Burke Class Guided Missile Destroyer, and Army Stryker combat vehicle — to prove out those capabilities.

The second increment of MGUE focuses on requirements for precision guided munitions, a joint common modular handheld unit, as well as circuit cards and components for low size, weight and power needs. With MGUE, the DoD and services are poised to have enduring PNT solutions the warfighter can leverage for years to come.

Integration Roadmaps

The delivery of individual programs is the stepping stone in the capability deliveries to the warfighter and our civilian users. However, it is our ability to unite a diverse collection of programs and stakeholders, across the GPS Enterprise, which defines our success as the GPS Green Monsters. We have done this by linking cross-program enterprise teams so the sum of the whole is greater than its parts.

Enterprise Road to Launch (ERTL). The goal is pulling together a series of firsts (new satellite, new ground system, and new launch provider), which has not been done before in the modern GPS Era, to deliver the spacecraft safely on-orbit and under control. Our journey to this historic launch has taken time and effort, and we are enthusiastically awaiting the final steps.

The first GPS III spacecraft is safely at Cape Canaveral and ready to go. The control system has been tested and run through its paces. The integrated launch team has conducted its exercises and reviews. All signs point to launch in December 2018.

The launch itself is a significant milestone, and marks a beginning of the orbital phase of GPS III. The Road to Launch team is prepared to execute the launch, the check-out and the day-to-day on-orbit housekeeping until the ground updates are complete to transfer the new GPS III satellite into the active constellation later in 2019.

Enterprise Road to Mission (ERM). The goal is bringing the GPS III satellites into the active constellation providing mission similar to today’s capabilities. A key enabler of the ERM IPT’s success is their development of the first-ever Enterprise “Integration Playbook”, which is the tangible, documented output of a significant dedicated planning effort.

The Playbook captures how all the pieces and efforts from each stakeholder community tie together to achieve Operational Acceptance of the first GPS III satellite, the USNDS payload, and the COps modification to OCS. The “Playbook” describes in clear and concise terms how these deliveries integrate across the GPS Enterprise, as well as how tasks and milestones from various stakeholders converge to achieve clear end states.

Enterprise Road to M-Code Mission, or ERM-M-Code. Shifting now to our military users, the purpose of the ERM-M-Code team is to lead the early delivery of a more robust, resilient, jamming/tampering-resistant PNT signal capability to warfighters.

The rollout of the operational M-code capability depends on the success of the M-Code Early Use modification to OCS, installation of new M-code signal monitoring equipment at sites around the globe, modification of mission planning software, Military GPS User Equipment Increment 1 development, service lead platform integration efforts, and operationalization of space receivers.

Our ultimate objective is to improve the ability of the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) to respond to urgent PNT needs of the combatant commanders, as they engage more sophisticated adversaries. We remain closely aligned with our peers at USSTRATCOM, AFSPC and user communities.


It is an exciting time to be a GPS Green Monster! These roadmaps are by no means easy to create and execute. It is thanks to the remarkable people of your GPS Directorate that these multifaceted challenges are unraveled, aligned, and resolved. The team has worked incredibly hard this past year to position our systems for major, integrated deliveries over the next couple of years.

It has been the highlight of my career to serve with these men and women and I can’t wait to see where we — and the GPS Enterprise — go next.