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Out in Front: GPS III and the Budget Blues

March 1, 2015  - By
Don Jewell

Don Jewell

Guest column by Don Jewell, Defense Editor

In the 2016 President’s Budget, submitted in February, the U.S. Air Force requested a budget of $122.2 billion. That exceeds the Office of Management and Budget’s recommendation by almost $10 billion. I applaud the Air Force action and think it may be too little, too late.

On the satellite or hardware 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 or 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. OCX is only designed to work with current and planned GPS SVs, and it doesn’t even do that today. In fact, the government only needs an MDU, a critical part of the payload. Failure to produce the MDU on time has delayed GPS III by 18 months to date.

More troubling to me are the phrases from the government plan that essentially mean “We are going to pay competitors to mature their technology so they can compete against the current prime (LMCO), who is building the first 10 GPS III satellites.” The government is saying the competitors on their own cannot compete against LMCO so we, the government, are going to give them contracts and lots of money to help them get to a point where they can compete, and then we are going to have a recompetition.

This will to take at least three years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and LMCO may well win again in the end, but at least we will have conducted a competition. Does this make sense? 

Will the U.S. Air Force initiate a competition to acquire an entirely new GPS III SV, or fix the problem with the current GPS III program, the MDU? It appears the Air Force is looking to pursue an entirely new GPS III system to include SVs.

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 troubled next-generation GPS ground control system, 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 in a spectacular and expensive way. It is possible, even probable, that OCX integration costs for yet another new model of GPS III family of satellites would increase the OCX budget significantly — unless one assumes that the Air Force acquires a perfectly matched new satellite that integrates seamlessly with OCX.What are the chances of that, and why would you spend hundreds of millions of scarce acquisition dollars to procure an exact and more expensive replica?

Budget constraints are tight and getting tighter, mandating the Air Force “do more with less” in every context. For GPS III SVs, this means developing an alternate MDU rather than buying a new block of GPS SVs.

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About the Author:


Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.

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