Lost in the desert, they demanded GPS: The adoption of GPS by the US Armed Services

December 4, 2023  - By

“I know where we are. I do not need a satellite system to tell me!” In the 1970s and 1980s, this was the number one military and civilian response to what GPS does. The existing military hardware included navigation systems and the defense industry had a vested interest in keeping its business. Civilian interest in GPS was low because of the program’s uncertain funding. The armed services saw no reason to add a new program to their budgets and were opposed to GPS.

The military program approval process was also inconsistent with the rapid changes in digital technology. The first GPS satellite was launched in February 1978, the first PC was released in August 1981, and the first Mac in January 1984. GPS went through a development process to build user equipment, test it to make sure it met military requirements and then build the limited-rate production equipment with a design about six years old.

Early GPS Manipack worn by JPO Army deputy Lt. Col. Paul Weber. This photo graced the cover of the first ever GPS brochure. (Image: GPS World archives)

Early GPS Manipack worn by JPO Army deputy Lt. Col. Paul Weber. This photo graced the cover of the first ever GPS brochure. (Image: GPS World archives)

My favorite joint service story is that our low cost, 19-lb, $55,000, hand-carry man pack flunked its first testing sequence. The Army placed it into an alkaline bath in September 1985, that ate the o-ring and caused it to fail the bio/chem decontamination requirement. The o-ring was an Air Force requirement because at 60,000 ft without venting the device would become a potential bomb. Yet, pressure relief failed to meet the Navy Seals’ requirement for underwater operation. The fixed man pack was now our limited rate production set. Developments in digital technology during the process made it overweight, over cost and unsuitable. To get hand-carry receivers, it became necessary to purchase modern civilian sets at the unexpected outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1990.

JPO ran a competition for 200 civilian receivers that had no military requirements to send them to the operational forces for training. Trimble won the competition and when the war came the following year with only 12 GPS satellites operational, JPO asked Trimble to deliver as many sets as it could produce at the price bid for the competition to augment the deliveries of the limited rate production military set. Talk about an operational education! The Army tank drivers who did not want GPS because “The war comes to us, so we do not need GPS” instantly demanded GPS receivers when they began to get lost by more than 10 miles on the featureless desert. The deployed troops began asking their parents for GPS receivers for personal use. The war integrated GPS into all military operations.

Realizing the value of GPS inter-service integration of forces, the military believed the civilian signal should only have degraded accuracy. But in May 2000, President Clinton decided the civilians also should have good accuracy and ordered that the degradation of the civilian signal (called Selective Availability) should cease. Today everybody is aware of what GPS provides. You never hear anyone say, “I know where I am, I do not need satellites to tell me.”

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About the Author: Gaylord Green

From 1973 to 1977, as an Air Force Major, Gaylord Green was on the staff of the GPS Joint Program Office (JPO). From 1985 to 1988, as a colonel, Green was the program’s manager.