Obstacles in the Orbit Path of GPS III

February 25, 2015  - By
Source: Alan Cameron

The Lockheed Martin GPS III Non-Flight Satellite Testbed (GNST).

A Lockheed Martin vice president has stated that the first GPS III satellite will likely launch in 2017, not 2016 as had been projected in the most recent update.

The company is readying the first satellite for launch availability by the end of 2015, for launch as early as the end of this year, but Space News reports that Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s military space business, stated in a Feb. 18 news briefing that he expects the Air Force will schedule its launch for early 2017.

The GPS III generation of modernized satellites — with new signals, added signal strength, and resistance to interference and jamming — was originally projected to begin orbiting in 2014. Technical difficulties have delayed the program. The principal issues, those with the payload, have now been resolved, according to Valerio.

Valerio expects a firmer GPS III launch announcement for 2017 in March. He expected the final launch date “will depend on the health of the existing constellation, the availability of launch slots and synchronization with the ground system.”  Ultimately, the Air Force always makes the final decision on the launch date.

Source: Alan Cameron

Lockheed Martin is contracted to build eight GPS III satellites.

Late last year, a spokesman for the Space and Missile Systems Center said that “The first GPS III launch is tentatively considered for the first half of FY17, based on booster availability and Air Force launch priorities.”

The Air Force has put out feelers for other contractors to finish out the full generation of GPS III satellites. Lockheed Martin is building eight, with an option for four more, totalling 12; a complete constellation of III-generation satellites would require 24. Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems and Northrop Grumman Aerospace are reportedly interested.

“The best thing I can do is keep marching along the plan we have,” Valerio said. “We’re certainly not afraid of the competition.” Lockheed Martin has submitted cost-cutting proposals for the current GPS III satellite design, he added.

Ground Control

The corresponding new ground system for GPS III, the Operational Control Segment (OCX), has also fallen behind schedule. Just this month, the Air Force announced that Lockheed Martin may develop an interim control capability, a set of changes implemented upon the current control segment, the Architecture Evolution Plan (AEP), as a backup.

Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, recently stated that OCX delays have pushed back GPS III operational testing “until after at least six, and as many as eight,” satellites have been launched into orbit. “This introduces significant risk that effectiveness and suitability deficiencies in GPS III satellites will not be discovered until it is too late to prevent their introduction to the operational constellation.”

Budget Blues

Don Jewell, GPS World’s contributing editor for defense, has written at length about the GPS III and OCX situations in his February newsletter column, “USAF FY16 Budget Plus $10B More, Please!”. We condensed some of his remarks, particular to the budget battle on Capitol Hill, for the Out in Front column of the March issue of the magazine, due out soon. Here is a further digest of those comments.

The 2016 President’s Budget, submitted in February, contains an Air Force requested a budget of $122.2 billion. This may be too little, too late.

On the satellite side of the house, GPS III has problems centering on development and delivery issues with a subcontractor. In this case, however, the whole satellite program is not failing, just a component, albeit an important one: the Mission Data Unit (MDU).

For GPS III+, the Air Force plans for a two-phased competition process: a Production Readiness competition for up to three firm-fixed price contracts to mature competitors’ production designs for a competition in a full and open competition for up to 22 GPS III Production SVs [satellite vehicles] with an expected award in FY17/18.

This sounds great if you need an entirely new GPS III system, which consists of, at a minimum, a new payload, satellite, launcher and ground C2 system. In fact, the government only needs an MDU. Failure to produce the MDU on time has delayed GPS III by 18 months to date.

More troubling are the government proposals to entertain other bids to finish the second half of the GPS III constellation. Such a competition or re-bid will take at least three years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars — and Lockheed Martin may well win again in the end

A significant added cost to the GPS budget concerns the need for a new ground C2 system if the total new systems approach is taken. If preliminary elements of the GPS space segment are developed without cross-checking the impact to the GPS control segment, technical, operational, budgetary and schedule impacts will be significant.

The already perturbed OCX budget likely has not considered the integration costs of a newly developed, yet-to-be-procured GPS III+ SV. OCX today is geared for the GPS III already contracted for, and it is failing to meet that challenge.

Budget constraints are tight and getting tighter, mandating the Air Force “do more with less” in every context. For GPS III SVs, this should — but by no means necessarily does — indicate developing an alternate MDU rather than buying a new block of GPS SVs.




About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.

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