Expert Advice: Unhealthy, Unappreciated, Incompletely Understood: The State of Our System

January 1, 2006  - By
Image: GPS World

By Jules G. McNeff

The Defense Science Board recently released the long-awaited report of its Task Force on the Future of the Global Positioning System. The Task Force conducted its deliberations during the latter half of 2004 and early 2005, a period of significant behind-the-scenes activity bearing on GPS. These activities included international negotiations and agreement, national policy discussions on GPS management, and considerations affecting GPS governance. After a lengthy Department of Defense internal review process, the report was approved for public release in October.

The Task Force itself represented a remarkable confluence of talent, including experts in GPS design, in military, civilian, and scientific applications of GPS, and in the inner workings of military, government, and industry operations. The insights and guidance of its co-chairs, Dr. James Schlesinger and Dr. Robert Hermann, with their unique combination of experience and personal credibility, lent enormous gravity to the undertaking. Their product illuminates in many ways the critical role GPS plays in our world. As an opening premise, proved throughout the report, it notes that “GPS is vital to the United States and to the DoD because, as a fundamental information system, it provides a common thread of precise position and time throughout our national security and economic infrastructures.”

One can remember many previous boards and committees that issued recommendations for GPS, and may have built a semblance of awareness but didn’t lead to tangible action. The result, noted from the beginning by the co-chairs, was that the apparently healthy GPS program wasn’t really all that healthy and that the malaise affected virtually all aspects of the program. They urged and the Task Force responded with discussion and findings specifically intended to be actionable and to address the underlying causes of the malaise, which are rooted in long-standing institutional factors that will require reinvigorated leadership and persistent follow-up to correct.

The Task Force noted a general lack of awareness of GPS role in the national infrastructure on the part of senior leaders in all areas of government. Although many people are aware of narrow aspects of GPS performance in individual applications, very few are truly aware of the breadth of GPS contributions to the national security and economy, nor of the enabling effects GPS has on critical national infrastructures. The Task Force viewed raising that awareness level among the nation’s senior leadership as key to addressing some of the other problems facing the program. Many of the other problems derive from lack of or misplaced management attention that allowed the components of the system to become unsynchronized.

Unbalanced attention to satellites at the expense of operational control functions and user equipment, annual diversion of funding from GPS to other programs, and delays among all the services in programming funds to equip military forces with improved user equipment are all symptoms of incomplete understanding of the role of GPS in military missions in general. Delays in making new signal capabilities available to users and reluctance to incorporate civil information sources into GPS constellation management are symptoms of incomplete understanding of the role of GPS in domestic and international civil infrastructures. Dilution of and uncertainty about policy and operational authority and responsibility for GPS are symptoms of insufficient appreciation among the most senior leaders for the critical importance stable, coherent policies and clear lines of communication represent to the consistent operation of GPS as a national resource and international utility.

This was a full slate of weighty issues, and the Task Force members addressed each in their discussions and findings. The report of their efforts has now been published ( and is being briefed at the highest levels of the Defense Department and in other government offices.

The recommendations it contains can serve as a prescription to make the Global Positioning System more healthy, robust, and vibrant for all of its military and civilian users and applications around the world. But the prescription will only be effective if the report’s messages are received, understood, accepted, and acted upon by those charged with the responsibility to maintain GPS viability. One cannot overemphasize the importance of firm and systematic implementation of the recommendations coupled with focused, dedicated, and persistent follow-up. Otherwise, this uniquely capable and credible Task Force will have seen its efforts wasted and its findings will become just another report.

Given the undeniable importance of GPS to both the national and international security and economy, that would be a monumental tragedy.

Jules G. McNeff served for several years in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense and was responsible for DoD navigation systems policy and overall management and oversight of the GPS program. He subsequently worked at SAIC and NASA before joining Overlook Systems Technologies as vice president for strategies and programs. He became a charter member of the Editorial Advisory Board of GPS World in 1990.

This article is tagged with , and posted in GNSS, Opinions