Gen. Shelton: GPS III Launch Date to Slip; ‘Patience is Wearing Thin’ With Payload Maker (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson

The Air Force is running out of patience with Lockheed Martin and its subcontractor Exelis when it comes to developing the next-generation of navigation satellites, the head of Space Command said Feb. 7 at a Washington, D.C., breakfast.

Gen. William Shelton, chief of Air Force Space Command, said the date when prime contractor Lockheed Martin and payload manufacturer Exelis are expected to have the first Global Positioning System satellite ready for launch will slip from its original target at the end of this fiscal year.

Technical difficulties are continuing to slow the development process, he said.

“We’re not happy at all. … Is my patience wearing thin? Yes. Has it gotten to the place where I am going to step off the cliff? No,” he said at a breakfast sponsored by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute.

The Air Force is working closely with the contractors, he said in response to a question on whether the service has been too hands off when it comes to the satellite development.

“Both the prime and the sub know exactly where we stand on this. I don’t think there is any shortage of attention. I don’t think they are wondering what we are thinking,” he said.

There is only one manufacturer of navigation payloads within the industrial base, which is something Shelton said he would like to change.
“Yes, we have reached out to others and encouraged development, so we will continue to look for other sources,” he said. “We are not in the place yet where we have given up on this particular contractor and we believe the product is going to be good once it is delivered.” 
Exelis was not able to respond to the comments prior to publication. (See update below.)

The “ready-to-launch date” is not the same as the actual launch date, he added. That would have been at the end of fiscal year 2015, he said.
“I think we are going to slip well past that now,” he said, but had no prediction as to when. The current generation of navigation satellites are still in the process of being launched, Shelton noted.

“We don’t believe right now that there is going to be an overall impact on the constellation delivery,” he said. Only four of a planned 12 current-generation GPS IIF spacecraft has made it into orbit, so there is time, he said.

There are 31 GPS satellites in orbit right now. “Some of them are old enough to vote,” he said. They are getting a little “fragile. We are a little concerned about the long-term viability of some of the satellites there,” Shelton said.

GPS III will have an M-code, or military code, which will be resistant to jamming and uses a different frequency than the signals the public receives.

“I’m going to guess that everybody in this room, whether you knew it or not, touched GPS this morning … either through your smartphone or your [navigation] system in your car that got you here, or a transaction that you did at an ATM,” Shelton said. The military depends on it for everything from the delivery of artillery shells, to the timing of its high-speed networks.

“Needless to say that is a capability that we are going to just have to sustain. The world wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.

“Do we have too much dependence on GPS? That is the question we are starting to ask across the Department of Defense. The answer is not to get off GPS, however. That will never be the answer in my view,” he added.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is doing “great work” looking into chip-scale inertial measurement units, and chip-scale atomic clocks, Shelton said. These aren’t near-term technologies, but rather mid- to long-term possible backups to GPS, he added.

Inertial measurement unit devices use a moving vehicle’s velocity, orientation and gravity readings to navigate. Shelton noted that IMUs alone cannot tell a person where he or she is. There has to be an initial GPS reference for such a back-up system to work.

The DARPA concept might allow an aircraft, ground vehicle or other system to remain on track even if an adversary is blocking the GPS signal. “It would have to be a circumstance where you are in and out of GPS jamming,” he said.

Shelton said he knows of no formal studies looking at GPS alternatives.

The Defense Department wants to be able to fight through GPS jamming, and other threats to its space systems. Realizing that the U.S. military is heavily dependent on its communication and navigation satellites,other concepts for a “day without space” are being considered.

Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan Jr., commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., said at the Milcom conference last year that there is now a mandate that Marines must conduct parts of their large-scale training exercises with degraded communications and GPS capabilities to simulate an adversary attacking space-based systems.
The four services are in the beginning stages of developing a concept called the joint area layered network, an Earth-based system that could provide crucial communication links when military satellite communications are degraded or lost.

Updated: Jared B. Adams, director of communications for Exelis geospatial systems said in an email response, “The payload hardware is built and is currently in test. Last year, Exelis identified some development issues with the navigation payload for the first GPS III satellite that needed further work. Significant testing with flight-like engineering units and the first GPS III satellite’s flight hardware indicates that the known technical issues have been resolved, and GPS III will meet all mission and quality requirements.”

“We want to make sure to get everything right before the payload goes into space, especially with this first one, so that the Air Force and end users can feel confident they will get the decades of reliable service they have come to expect from Exelis payloads,” he continued. “Over the last 40 years, we have developed more than 50 GPS satellite payloads and payload components that have been on every GPS satellite ever launched, accumulating nearly 700 years of on-orbit life without a single mission-related failure due to Exelis equipment.”

Topics: Space

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