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ARLINGTON, Va. — The current Global Positioning System is good enough for any U.S. military operation that kicks off in the near future, even though the 1970’s-era system is getting a bit gray around the chops, a senior Air Force space official said Wednesday.

“Our satellites are doing pretty well,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Franklin Blaisdell told Pentagon reporters at a briefing touting the Pentagon’s space capabilities. “What we have today is absolutely superb.”

Blaisdell, the Air Force’s Director of Space Operations and Integration, also said that although relatively inexpensive, Russian-made GPS jamming systems are available on the international black market for arms, the Pentagon “has tested that possibility.”

“We’re the country that put up GPS, and we’ve done a great job,” Blaisdell said. “We understand the pros and cons of the system,” and enemies who believe jamming will defeat GPS are wrong.

The possibility of GPS getting jammed or otherwise failing in combat is a prospect that sends shivers down the back of troops, who since Operation Desert Storm have come to almost totally rely on the system to tell them not only where they are on the battlefield, but where the enemy is, as well.

And GPS is more than just a lifeline to troops in the field: The guidance system is also at the heart of almost every high-tech weapons platform in the U.S. military’s arsenal. Targeting systems, terrain reconnaissance, electronic mapping, battle damage assessment — all those systems use GPS in some fashion.

Of all GPS-based weapons, Pentagon officials are counting in particular on precision-guided munitions (PGMs) to make any war with Iraq devastatingly effective while producing a minimal amount of harm to civilians and infrastructure.

During Desert Storm, just 9 percent of all munitions dropped by the Air Force were “smart” PGM bombs.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, specifically the campaign in Afghanistan, 70 percent of Air Force ordnance has been PGMs, Blaisdell said.

But GPS was designed in the 1970s, and its satellites are getting old. Fewer than half of the constellation is fully operational today, Owen Wormser, the Pentagon’s principal deputy for spectrum, space, sensors and command, control and communications, told Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine in November.

Meanwhile, a series of launch problems over the past five years — most recently an Oct. 25 launch pad accident that damaged a GPS satellite’s Boeing Delta II booster — has delayed the Pentagon’s efforts to replace satellites with newer, more reliable versions.

The Air Force is now working on a next-generation system, dubbed GPS III, which would replace the entire GPS constellation beginning by 2012. GPS III is supposed to provide more sophisticated targeting capabilities and be much more difficult to jam than the current system.

But in the Pentagon’s recent 2004 budget request to Congress, the Air Force decided to delay awarding the prime GPS III contract and cut off funding for the program until 2008, in order to pay for other space satellite programs, such as Space Based Radar.

In February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioned the Air Force’s decision to delay the GPS III program, according to a report in Aerospace Daily.

Aerospace Daily said Rumsfeld sent a memo Feb. 25 to several senior defense officials that said if anything was going to change in the program, it should be accelerated, not delayed.

Blaisdell declined to comment Wednesday on the Air Force’s response to Rumsfeld, saying that GPS III budget decisions are made at higher levels than his office.

“[Air Force Secretary James G.] Roche, [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P.] Jumper, in concert with the Secretary of Defense, will work all these issues,” Blaisdell said.

But Blaisdell did acknowledge that at some point, GPS III must come online in order to keep the technology cutting-edge.

“Do we need [GPS III] operationally? Yeah, we do,” Blaisdell said.

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