Air Force Seeks Path Forward For Troubled GPS III Program

By Stew Magnuson
GPS III concept art

Art: Air Force

The Air Force is being forced to restructure or cancel the troubled ground control segment of its GPS III program, putting the next generation timing and navigation system at risk.  

The program to develop the next generation operational control system, better known as OCX, began with a contract award to Raytheon Co. in 2010.

Six years later, it has failed to deliver the first two software blocks, and the rising costs of the program has triggered a Nunn-McCurdy breach, which requires the Defense Department to either sign off on continuing the program or restarting it.

“Factors that led to the critical Nunn-McCurdy breach include inadequate systems engineering at program inception, Block 0 software with high defect rates, and Block 1 designs requiring significant rework,” the Air Force said in a press statement.

Before the Nunn-McCurdy breach was announced, members of Congress were already expressing their ire with the program. The Senate Appropriations Committee in its 2017 defense spending package called for $260 million to be cut from the $393 million the administration requested.

The contract was worth some $1.5 billion when awarded in 2010. The Air Force now estimates that it needs an additional $3.7 billion to complete the project, the 2017 budget request revealed.

GPS III has three components — the spacecraft, the ground control system, and GPS enabled equipment. All are on different development timelines, which is made all the more complicated by the OCX delay, according to the latest Government Accountability office report on the program, which was released September 2015.

The current GPS network is functioning fine and is expected to do so for a number of years. A minimum of 24 spacecraft are needed, but because some of the older models have exceeded their life expectancy and new ones continue to be launched, there are now 40 in orbit, with eight of them being spares, it said.

GPS III is expected to provide capability beyond the current system, and the OCX system is essential if the GPS III satellites are to deliver new capabilities. Those include: advanced cybersecurity; signal boosting and spot beams capabilities that can power through enemy jamming; and use of the M-code, which provides encrypted and more precise navigation data exclusive to the military and government users.

The M-code will not be available until the Block 0 and Block 1 software are functioning. There is a Block 2, which will deliver further improvements, but it is not essential for the operation of the new satellites.

Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, deputy chief of staff for operations, is among the Air Force leaders who believe that there is little choice, but to somehow move forward on the program.

“I’m not in the acquisition business so what I would say from an operator’s perspective, OCX is absolutely critical to us. You have to have the ability to command and control future GPS satellites in orbit and it remains a vital program,” he told National Defense.

The GAO report said there was plenty of blame to go around. It faulted both Raytheon and the Air Force for the delays.

The service did not follow best acquisition practices, it said. For example, it skipped a preliminary design review. Key cybersecurity requirements were not well understood by either party and they were poorly communicated to the contractor. The program experienced significant development delays from the beginning, but the Air Force continued to deliver optimistic reports on its progress, it said.

“OCX issues appear to be persistent and systemic, raising doubts whether all root causes have been adequately identified, let alone addressed,” the GAO report said.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James personally traveled to Raytheon’s campus in Aurora, Colorado, to conduct the second in a series of quarterly reviews of the OCX program, a statement from the Air Force provided to National Defense said.

Raytheon briefed its progress on implementing process improvements, which included increased automation in software development, platform deployment, as well as an improvement in their software approach, the statement said.

The pair, along with Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Space and Missile Systems Center commander and Air Force program executive officer for space, “concluded that Raytheon has made progress implementing these critical changes,” the statement said.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, said the irony of the OCX situation is that the program was once intended to serve as a model for a new way to do space acquisitions. After many failed and delayed programs in the 1990s, GPS III was supposed to serve as a pathfinder and a “return to basics” where the Air Force would not delegate too much decision-making power to the contractor. It would also ensure that all cybersecurity requirements were met instead of issuing waivers, which had been a long-time practice.

“Both the contractor and the government simply didn’t grasp how complicated OCX was going to be,” Thompson said.

Ground systems are far more vulnerable to cyber intrusions than spacecraft. GAO identified some 250 portals where a hacker could penetrate the system.

“Raytheon literally worked for years on this thing before they realized the full extent of the information assurance requirements,” he said.

The Air Force will have no choice but to restructure the program and move forward, Thompson said.

“It’s not too big to fail, it’s too critical to fail,” he said in an interview.

Without the ground system, GPS III will not function as advertised. The legacy system will continue to be vulnerable to hacking, the signal susceptible to jamming and the M-code a white elephant, he noted. Today, there are GPS II satellites in orbit with M-code capabilities, but they are not being used to their full potential because OCX is not in place, he added.

Thompson said the Air Force and Raytheon have made progress fixing some of the problems, which were first recognized in 2013.

Raytheon, a week prior to the Nunn-McCurdy announcement, said the company had passed an electromagnetic interference qualification test for its monitor station receiver element and critical design review for its hardware.

Raytheon spokeswoman Michelle Lammers said the company could not provide further comment.

Thompson said there has been a series of press releases indicating that the program is back on track.

The Air Force has asked Congress for $39 million to help resolve some outstanding issues and “replan” the program. Thompson said legislators should approve it. It’s a small amount to pay in a program that will cost billions.

“The indication is that some tweaks are sufficient to get it on track,” Thompson said.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin, which won the $3.6 billion contract in 2008 to develop and build the first batch of GPS III satellites, may be delivering spacecraft that can’t be used to their full potential. A May press release from the company said its production line was in “full swing” and that there were eight spacecraft in various stages of production.

This may turn out to be another example of military space satellites that are not synchronized with the ground control systems or terminals, Thompson said.  

Winston Beauchamp, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space, said there are two main options: modifying the existing GPS system or recompeting the contract, the trade publication Defense News reported.

Restarting the program would be challenging, he said. “But it would be challenging in either case. Both of them have challenges.”

The broad requirement to detect and refuse access to all potential intrusions has turned out to be the program’s downfall, he said. It is in some ways a moving target, he said, as hackers are always discovering new exploits.  

“That’s a lot to have to do, and hardening the software from a cyber perspective and closing off these hundreds of entry points to the internet has proven to be extremely challenging, as you could imagine,” he said.

If the program is restructured, it will have to include more flexibility in the requirements, he said.

The Air Force statement said the decision on how to move forward will be made by October. Kendall, who will make the ultimate decision, told Defense News, “To be blunt, it’s a mixed bag. I’m seeing some evidence of progress, but I’m still seeing some problems,” Kendall said. “I think Raytheon is putting additional resources into the program and I do see some signs of improvement. We also have had a couple of hiccups, I’ll say.”

Kendall reiterated the belief that starting over could create its own set of problems and indicated the best option would be for Raytheon to fix the issues.

“It’s a critical system. It would be very disruptive to stop where we are and start over,” Kendall said. ”That’s not a preferred alternative. But on the other hand I need to see adequate progress or we’ll have to consider that sort of alternative.”

Kendall also said threats from lawmakers to cut off funding for the program are counterproductive.

“My biggest concern right now is some of the things Congress is doing to the program would make it impossible to execute successfully, so we’re going to be having conversations with the relevant committees,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kristen Torres.

Topics: Procurement, Space