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First Fix: Still waiting for M-Code

July 10, 2023  - By
Matteo Luccio

Max Weber famously described how bureaucratic inertia often leads formal organizations, such as government agencies, to devise new justifications for themselves after they have outlived their original purpose. That is certainly not the case for the U.S. Space Force, which is in its infancy and is responsible for key missions, including operating the Global Positioning System that it took over from the United States Air Force about two years ago.

However, bureaucratic inertia can also refer to the tendency of organizations to continue to pursue projects or approaches that may no longer be the best match for their goals, missions, or budgets. A recent, congressionally-mandated report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) — Report to Congressional Committees, GPS MODERNIZATION: Space Force Should Reassess Requirements for Satellites and Handheld Devices, issued in June — questions the Space Force’s approach to modernizing GPS with a more jam-resistant, military-specific signal known as M-code.

In 2005, the Air Force launched the first GPS satellite capable of broadcasting the M-code signal, which is at the core of a multi-billion-dollar modernization and sustainment effort. Yet, 18 years later, widespread adoption of the technology is still hampered by delays in upgrading GPS ground and user equipment. Approximately 700 types of weapon systems — including ground vehicles, ships and aircraft — will ultimately require M-code-capable user equipment.

Providing M-code requires the cooperation of GPS’ ground, space and user equipment segments. Regarding the first one, the report states: “In 2022, Space Force further delayed delivery of the ground control segment due to development challenges. This delay pushes delivery until December 2023 at a minimum. Space Force officials have not finalized a new schedule and acknowledged that remaining risks could lead to additional delays.”

Regarding the space segment, it states: “Space Force met its approved requirement for 24 M-code-capable satellites on orbit but determined that it needs at least three more to meet certain user requirements for accuracy. Building and maintaining this larger constellation presents a challenge. GAO’s analysis indicates it is not likely that 27 satellites will be available on a consistent basis over the next decade.”

Finally, regarding the user segment, it notes that development of the Military GPS User Equipment (MGUE) Increment 1 has progressed “to the point where the military departments are ready to commence activities in support of testing and fielding it on the lead weapon systems.” However, it cautions that “[d]elays and unexpected challenges could affect the fielding of capability for some systems.”

GAO’s report recommends that the United States Department of Defense (DOD) assess the number of GPS satellites necessary to meet operational needs, and either develop a sound business case for the M-code-capable Increment 2 handheld, or not initiate the effort. The DOD concurred with both recommendations.

Who Runs GPS?”, the special feature in our February 2023 issue, which detailed the structure of this vast enterprise, listed an executive committee, a coordination office, an oversight council, two Space Force commands, and, as partners, several federal departments and agencies. Has this complex structure become too diffuse to make tough decisions?

Matteo Luccio | Editor-in-Chief

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About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at or 541-543-0525.