GAO: Air Force struggling to maintain GPS satellite fleet
September 23, 2010
NAPLES, Italy — The Air Force continues to struggle to maintain the nation’s Global Positioning System satellite fleet and might not be able to keep up with a launch schedule to ensure uninterrupted coverage, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
A minimum of 24 continuously orbiting satellites, user equipment and ground control systems are required for GPS to provide a steady stream of information for everything from military missile strikes to money transfers and car navigation, along with a host of other services that government and commercial organizations have come to rely on, according to the report.
The Air Force launched its third generation IIF satellite in May — almost 3½ years behind schedule at more than double the initial cost estimate of $729 million. The delay was caused by updated government requirements, Air Force officials said last year.
The late launch of the new satellite led Air Force officials to send up the remaining older generation satellites, depleting current inventories.
The move leaves the system vulnerable because there are no more replacement satellites on hand if something goes wrong with the IIF models which are only fully tested while in orbit, GPS program officials said in the report.
Extensive delays in developing a new GPS ground control system could create a chain-reaction effect resulting in a delayed launch of fourth generation IIIA, B and C satellites, currently planned for 2014. The new satellites provide a stronger military signal that improves resistance to jamming and near real-time command and control by cross links.
The Defense Department rejected GAO’s recommendation to work with the Department of Transportation to provide oversight, saying instead the Interagency Forum for Operational Requirements (an interagency group made up of members from the Air Force Space Command and the Department of Transportation) has a review under way to address the GPS program’s shortfalls.
Last year the GAO released a report warning that the Air Force might not be able to acquire and launch new satellites in time to prevent interruptions in GPS coverage, saying military and civilian agencies could be adversely affected. The report cited “an acquisition strategy that relaxed oversight and quality inspections …” as part of the problem.
The GAO report released last week was a follow-up to the 2009 report.