Your behavior appears to be a little unusual. Please verify that you are not a bot.

From “We don’t need it” to “We can’t live without it”

December 4, 2023  - By

The Air Force was initially opposed to GPS. How did that change?

Between 1978 and at least the mid-1980s, maybe even the late 1980s, the Air Force tried several times to cancel the program. At the time, I was a Capitol Hill staffer for the House Intelligence Committee. In one of those efforts to cancel GPS, Tom Cooper, who was a lead staffer for the House Armed Services Committee, came to me and said, “Can you guys give any reason for keeping GPS?” And I said, “Yes, it greatly improves the accuracy of SIGINT [signals intelligence] locations. It makes a very big difference.”

So, Tom used that, along with other arguments, for why we should keep GPS. The Committee and Congress ultimately decided they would, despite the Air Force’s resistance.

The Air Force’s resistance came from the Strategic Air Command, which in the 1980s believed it would never use satellites. They were concerned about the satellites being shot down. I found this amusing because they were flying around in aircraft at a few thousand feet and were concerned about satellites flying at 11,000 miles. But they were, so they were laggards.

Two U.S. Marine Attack Squadron 211 F-35B Lightning IIs and two U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagles assigned to the 67th Fighter Squadron, fly over United Kingdom aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth over the west Indo-Pacific region in August 2021. (Photo: USAF/Staff Sgt. Kyle Johnson)

Image: USAF/Staff Sgt. Kyle Johnson

Which service adopted GPS first and why?

The service that by far led the way was the Army. It spent $100 million a year absorbing NRO capabilities. They also spent money on GPS, though not as much. By the time we got to the first Gulf War, in 1991, we had a partial GPS constellation — I think of 18 satellites of the 24 required — and that meant that you didn’t have 100% coverage all day long. So, coverage maps of their areas of interest were generated every day to let people in the field know when they would have service. Most of them didn’t have receivers either. Most of the receivers they did have were Precision Lightweight GPS Receivers (PLGR), knows as “pluggers”, which were the first “handheld” receivers, but they were pretty big.

Once the fight got going, many of the troops wrote home and asked their moms and dads to send them civilian receivers.

Yes! Thousands and thousands of them showed up in theater. Some troops taped them to the windscreens of their helicopters or jet aircraft. They were just jury-rigged into everything because, despite their limitations at the time, they were very, very useful, unlike anything else. So, now everybody realized, “Oh my goodness, this is really a big deal. This is a game changer!”

Then we got more modern receivers, integrated receivers, the whole thing. However, at the end of the Gulf War, the Air Force still had no plan to equip any of its aircraft with GPS. As Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, I was called over to the Armed Services Committee and asked, “What is your plan for integrating GPS receivers into your aircraft fleet?” I said, “There is no plan.” and they were incredulous. They looked at me like “Well, you’re an idiot.”

It wasn’t me, however, and the staff knew my story before I gave it. As a result, Congress mandated it. They put it in that year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Within less than 10 years you had Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and other GPS-guided weapons. So, that got it moving quickly.

By the end of the 1990s, the Air Force was fully on board and were equipping their aircraft with many weapons that depended on GPS. Meanwhile, GPS had moved to a full constellation of 24 satellites. Full operating capability was declared in 1995. The Navy proceeded similarly, but they were somewhat less affected. So, the Army remained a leader in using space.

The Chief of Staff of the Air Force asked me about Air Force use of GPS. I said, “Chief, the Air Force builds a lot of space stuff, but it doesn’t use it.” Of course, a short time later it was using it extensively. So, this ramp-up was very rapid — just a few years from “I don’t give a darn about these things” to “I can’t live without them.”

Brad Parkinson and his successors as JPO directors designed and built the system but had no role in its adoption, right?

No. They were going turn it over to the production house, if you will, and they did. Once the Air Force got on board with GPS guided weapons, adoption proceeded rapidly.

What about the Navy?

I don’t recall the Navy particularly. I do not at all accuse them of being laggards. I think they did what they needed, whatever that was.

Did later NDAAs expand that mandate to the other services?

I don’t know. I was out of the government by that time, so I lost track. I don’t think it was necessary. What people didn’t understand immediately was that you could do anything with this system. At the end of the day, it is a super accurate timing signal. There are many things you could do with that and people have done them. It quickly became evident that it was so pervasively useful, that anything you could think of involves GPS, from the era of the first Gulf War onward. By 10 years later, many weapons systems in all the services were GPS-guided. I later served on the board of ATK and we were building GPS-guided artillery rounds. I am pretty sure that the ATACMS [Army Tactical Missile System] you hear about today is GPS guided.

So, in a couple of years, all the services wanted to integrate GPS in all their platforms and weapons.

Well, except that the amazing thing was, despite all the things that people had done with GPS in the Gulf War — starting with those helicopters that went in the first night and took out the command and control system, which were guided by Army-provided pluggers taped onto the windscreens by their pilots, and downed pilots using GPS to give their coordinates to the rescue teams — at the end of the war the Air Force still didn’t have a plan to put them on its aircraft! That’s when Congress mandated it. It was amazing.

Despite that, once they got going, particularly once they got going with GPS-guided weapons, everything changed. I don’t know whether the Air Force became leaders, but they were certainly aggressive integrators of the program into the service. There was no more, “We won’t use satellites” and all that.

That was after my time. I left government in early 1993. There were other big fish to fry at the same time. As important as I realized it was, I still didn’t realize how important it was, and I was way ahead of most everybody else, in the Air Force anyway.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) chief scientist at the time said, “The great thing about GPS is that it is a tool around which you can build myriad capabilities.” He outlined a few for the FAA, many of which they have since done. The same thing began to happen in the services, particularly in the Air Force, in which GPS-guided weapons were pervasive within 10 years.

Part of Brad’s motto for JPO was “The mission of this program office is, number one, to drop five bombs in the same hole.”

Yeah. By the way, one mistake that people make a lot is they think there were GPS-guided weapons during the first Gulf War. That was not the case. There were none by then. There were precision guided munitions that were guided by maps and lasers and a variety of means. But, despite the belief of many authors, there were no GPS-guided weapons at that time.

So, which was the first conflict in which GPS was used?

It was the Iraq War, in 2003. It was a major user of GPS-guided weapons.

Any other thoughts on the 50th anniversary from the military side of things?

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance to military operations and, frankly, to civilian life as well, of being able to easily and accurately navigate or have highly accurate time.
You can do it with a $100 receiver, whereas it used to require a $10,000 receiver and you had to have it re-initialized from a standard. So that’s what everybody does. Now, this has created probably more dependency than is healthy and many nations have backup that we don’t have.

Such as Loran-C. That’s a big subject of debate these days, as you know.

Well, it’s been a subject of debate for 20 years. Everybody agrees, but nobody moves.

The Department of Transportation recently released an action plan on the adoption of complementary PNT systems. So, there’s some movement.

As a one-time government bureaucrat, what you do when people are on your back is launch a study and say, “Well, it will be done in a year or two.” They have done this time, after time, after time.

There was the Volpe study more than 20 years ago.


About the Author: Martin Faga 

From 1989 to 1993, Martin “Marty” Faga was both Director, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and Assistant Secretary for Space, U.S. Air Force. From 2000 to 2006, he was President and CEO, The Mitre Corporation. From 2013 to 2023, he was Chairman of the Board, Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. Matteo Luccio interviewed him shortly before he passed away on October 19, 2023.