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Directions 2022: GPS positioned for the future

May 2, 2022  - By

By Michael J. Dunn, Space Systems Command, Capability Area Integrator for Positioning, Navigation and Timing

The Global Positioning System is the premier positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) source for more than six billion users worldwide. It is vital to the function of all 16 of the United States’ essential critical infrastructure components. Life as we know it relies on the essential services that GPS provides.

The United States Space Force (USSF) is committed to maintaining a healthy GPS constellation that continues to deliver the “gold standard” of PNT availability and reliability throughout the world. Continuous improvements in equipment and performance have been a hallmark of the enterprise since its inception. 2021 was no exception, with a continued record-setting delivery of new capabilities.

Space Systems Command (SSC) at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California, is laser-focused on delivering the most important modernization in GPS history. The government and industry team are committed to bringing major upgrades to the space, control and user-equipment segments. It is an exhilarating time for the GPS enterprise. The specific updates within each segment cement the continued evolution in GPS and the USSF commitment to delivering advanced capabilities to the nation and the world.

Space Segment

Currently, 37 GPS satellites are on orbit, with 29 satellites set healthy. The baseline constellation requirement is 24 satellites. The system continues to perform in stellar fashion, providing an average 48-centimeter position accuracy throughout 2021.

Orbital systems modernization is focused on the GPS III satellite fleet, and the program continues to deliver peerless capabilities. GPS III space vehicles (SV) 1–4 were all operationally accepted in 2020. In 2021, the most notable event was the launch of GPS III SV05 in June. The satellite successfully achieved operational acceptance and mission-capable status for USSF in just under two weeks: a new record. SVs 6–8 are available for launch and are awaiting their launch windows. SV09 system-level testing is in progress. SV10 component deliveries continue. GPS III provides up to eight times better anti-jam and a new L1C signal to improve user connectivity.

For the GPS IIIF program, the long-range picture remains bright as the contract for GPS IIIF SVs 15–17 was awarded in October 2021. The delivery of the first GPS IIIF is expected early in 2026. GPS IIIF will build upon the tremendous increase in capability provided by GPS III with the addition of a search-and-rescue payload, a laser retroreflector array for precise ranging, a fully digital navigation payload, and a Regional Military Protect capability that will provide 60 times greater anti-jam for operations in electromagnetically hostile environments.

GPS III space vehicle 05 (GPS III-SV05) launched in June 2021 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base, Florida, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. (Photo: SpaceX)

GPS III space vehicle 05 (GPS III-SV05) launched in June 2021 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base, Florida, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. (Photo: SpaceX)

Control Segment

The next-generation Operational Control System (OCX) continues to execute within its program baseline. OCX will provide enhanced command and control capabilities, modernized architecture, robust information assurance and cyber security.

OCX’s incremental development approach began with OCX Block 0, which is the launch and checkout system (LCS) for GPS III. The LCS successfully supported the launch and checkout of GPS III SV 01–05. OCX Blocks 1 and 2 will control all legacy GPS III satellites and both legacy and modernized signals.

Despite barriers presented by the global COVID-19 pandemic, all 17 global OCX monitoring station installations were completed in July 2021. Most of the remaining equipment was fielded throughout December 2021. System integration and verification continues with transition to operations scheduled for early 2023.

The Next Generation OCX 3F contract was awarded in April 2021. The program will modify OCX to launch and control GPS IIIF satellites with enhanced capabilities. Acquisition Milestone B is expected in 2022, and operational acceptance is planned for 2027.

MGUE: The future warfighter’s battlespace edge. (Image: Space Systems Command Production Corps)

MGUE: The future warfighter’s battlespace edge. (Image: Space Systems Command Production Corps)

User Equipment Segment

Millions of GPS receivers are fielded, but very few of them can use the military code (M-code) signal that is being broadcast by 24 GPS SVs. To keep our competitive advantage against the adversary, the GPS enterprise is focused on developing modernized GPS user equipment (MGUE) that takes advantage of these signals. The MGUE program is a joint service program developing modernized, M-code-capable military GPS receivers. The program is broken into two increments (Inc 1 and Inc 2). Both are designed to deliver secure PNT performance, allow navigation warfare operations, enhance anti-jam, anti-spoof and anti-tamper, and enable Blue Force Electronic Attack.

MGUE Inc 1 achieved a major milestone in September 2021 with successful testing on the Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV). The event took place in an electromagnetically degraded GPS environment at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The JLTV is a pathfinder lead platform for the MGUE program. Lead platforms for the other services, the Army Stryker combat vehicle, Air Force B-2 bomber, and Navy Arleigh-Burke Class Guided Missile Destroyer, will commence integration testing in FY23 and FY24.

MGUE Inc 2 development continues to make progress in maturing the next generation ASIC technology required for all weapon-system platforms to provide functionality and backward compatibility. It will deliver a miniature serial interface card in CY26 to support handheld and ground applications. Eventually, MGUE receiver cards will be loaded onto hundreds of Department of Defense (DOD) weapon systems.

GPS III SV04 in Highbay (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

GPS III SV04 in Highbay (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

Partner Community

The GPS enterprise is committed to cooperation on a global basis. It works closely with the DOD, the armed services, the U.S. Coast Guard, other federal agencies, the International Civil Aviation Organization and all the other global and regional navigation satellite systems toward the development of PNT in the global commons.

A highlight of this cooperative work is GPS enterprise involvement in the National Executive Committee for Space-Based PNT (PNT EXCOM), which supports the interests of the various federal bodies, especially the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The PNT EXCOM is applying GPS technology to a broad variety of governmental activities, including the development of the Next Generation Air Transportation System and intelligent transportation systems.

The GPS enterprise commitment to international partners is unwavering. Our support to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is ongoing with support to the Capability Panel 2 for Navigation working toward the integration of MGUE and compatibility arrangements with Europe’s Galileo system. A highlight this year was the first delivery of MGUE loan equipment to the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and the Republic of Korea. Germany is the first country to purchase MGUE equipment.

Conclusion

GPS is the foundation of global PNT and a cornerstone of modern life. Improvements to the enterprise are continual. As the nation moves into the complex and dynamic world of the coming decades, the dedicated military, civilian and industry professionals that provide this world-changing capability will continue their challenging and rewarding work. Semper Supra!

The "encapsulation" of a GPS satellite. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

The “encapsulation” of a GPS satellite. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

About the Author:


Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.

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