With the United States' legacy GPS satellites progressively failing and the Air Force's efforts to replace them faltering, the Government Accountability Office says there are serious questions looming as to whether the government will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current military, enterprise and civilian GPS needs without interruption.
In addition to deploying GPS for military use, the U.S. government provides GPS service free of charge and plans to invest more than $5.8 billion over the next five years in GPS satellites and ground control segments. The Department of Defense provides most of the funding for the GPS system and the Air Force is responsible for GPS acquisition and is in the process of modernizing the GPS.
The U.S. currently has 31 GPS satellites in orbit, grouped in an array known as a constellation. The current block upgrade of GPS satellites has overrun its original estimated cost of $729 million by an additional $870 million. In addition, the block will be completed three years late.
"If the Air Force does not meet its schedule goals for development of GPS IIIA satellites, there will be an increased likelihood that in 2010, as old satellites begin to fail, the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to," the GAO said in the GPS report. (PDF)
In addition to predicting that a two-year delay in the program could lead to a deterioration of the constellation by 2010, the GAO said the delays in the replacement program might reduce the constellation to 18 satellites before full recovery in 2020.
In an additional analysis, GAO outlined a scenario in which, if the GPS block encounters even just a two-year delay, the probability of maintaining a full service constellation drops precipitously starting in October 2013, possibly going as low as 10 percent by 2018.
Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, blamed the possible lag in the GPS system upgrade on Department of Defense contracting rules.
"This is not a new problem to DOD procurement. We have another situation where the contractor-given total system responsibility for the development-could not execute the job either on time or on budget," Tierney said at a May 7 hearing.
According to the GAO, "No major satellite program undertaken in the past decade has met its scheduled goals."
Tierney said, "It would seem that GPS is no exception. What was billed as an effort to streamline the acquisition process instead resulted in a lack of oversight and control by the Air Force and Department of Defense. Like the predecessor GPS block and so many other DOD procurements, the contract is a 'cost plus' type contract, meaning the government will pick up the tab no matter how expensive it ends up becoming."
Tierney added, "The reality is that from an acquisition perspective, we are nearing the 11th hour. The president's fiscal 2010 budget terminates funding for the primary GPS backup system, LORAN. That puts a lot of pressure on DOD to ensure GPS meets all user needs-a precarious position to be in if a gap is looming."