The next-generation GPS 3 satellite navigation system is held up as a model of the U.S. Air Force’s back-to-basics to space acquisition philosophy, but it is easy to draw the connection between that approach and early program cost growth that has cost prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems some $70 million in award fees.
Back to basics emphasizes retiring technology and design risks during the design phase programs lest they blossom during full-scale development and construction, a phenomenon that has led to massive cost growth on U.S. military space programs. But Lockheed’s rigor in wringing out these early programmatic risks has been a cost driver in its own right, says Keoki Jackson, the company’s top GPS 3 manager.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office has flagged GPS 3 as a procurement that bears close scrutiny, but Jackson insists the program remains within its projected budget. Cost control is a major point of emphasis on the program, which has seen numerous changes since Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems won the development contract in 2008. The Air Force has since abandoned, for example, a constellation upgrade strategy that was to introduce new capabilities on large blocks of satellites in favor of a more incremental approach.
The Air Force and Lockheed Martin also intend to convert the satellite manufacturing contract to a fixed-price arrangement in which the company assumes responsibility for covering cost overruns, and they continue to explore launching the satellites two at a time.
Jackson spoke recently with Space News staff writer Titus Ledbetter III.
Have you been able to get GPS 3 cost growth under control?
Obviously, we have had some development challenges. The bulk of the cost growth is really driven by the investments that we have made up front, for example, in these very rigorous parts, materials and process standards as well as all of the trailblazing that we are doing with the GPS 3 Non-Flight Satellite Testbed. That has really allowed us to retire these developmental challenges and the associated cost risk early on. We are already starting to see very significant improvements in terms of the hours and cost associated with the initial integration on the first flight vehicle. I think it is important to emphasize here that although on the contractor side we have had some cost growth, overall the program remains within the original budget that was established by the Air Force.
Can you talk about the planned conversion of the GPS 3 program from a cost-plus to fixed-priced contract?
Affordability is really a key factor looking at the overall sustainment of the GPS 3 constellation. We plan to go to fixed-price starting at vehicle five on GPS 3. We have submitted our first two proposals to the Air Force associated with that fixed-price conversion. We anticipate being on contract for long lead for vehicles five, six, seven and eight under that fixed-price model this fall. Vehicles one, two, three and four are already on contract as cost-plus-award-incentive-fee satellites. There is not going to be any change to the first four satellites. There is another piece of the program that we call the Capability Insertion Program, sometimes referred to as SMI, or Space Modernization Initiative. That is the development activity that is designed to bring on new capabilities into GPS 3 in a very low-risk, predictable fashion. That additional development work, which is ongoing today, would also remain as a cost-plus piece of the contract.
What upgrades are planned for the GPS 3 satellites?
The Air Force continues to be committed to bringing on additional capability into GPS 3. There are some real drivers for that, chief among which is the need for some additional payload capability, in particular the Distress Alerting Satellite System, which relays distress signals. There is also a need to bring on what we call the digital waveform generation capability. That allows you to reprogram the signal structure of the satellites on orbit so that you don’t need to launch new satellites in order to put on new signals. Looking farther downstream, the Air Force is very interested in countering the increased jamming threat that we are seeing worldwide. They want to have the ability to significantly increase the power, particularly in terms of regional anti-jam capability.
What was the rationale for scrapping the block upgrade plan, which entailed building multiple A-, B- and C-model satellites, in favor or a more incremental approach?
Under the Air Force’s current plan, capability and technology will be added in a more graceful, flexible and conservative manner with an eye on affordability, while being responsive to evolving threats and technology opportunities. Rather than committing to large upgrades all at once before the technologies and costs are fully understood, the plan will allow the Air Force to analyze alternatives and strategically introduce technologies only when the technology is ready and the costs and risks to do so are low. We look at technology insertion in two ways: technology to reduce costs and technology to increase capabilities.
How will GPS 3 technology improvements be incorporated into the satellites?
We have the real estate on the satellite as well as the size, weight and power to be able to gracefully accommodate additional capability. Because of the way we designed the satellite in the beginning, there is very little impact in terms of redesigning existing components. It is really just bringing on the new capabilities without impacting the work that has been done. All of those technologies can be proven out and then demonstrated on the nonflight trailblazer before we ever bring them on a flight vehicle. That significantly reduces the integration risk for these new capabilities.
How will the GPS 3 satellites be different from the current-generation GPS 2F craft?
Potentially most important, particularly with respect to the jamming threat, is the increase in the military signal power. We have incorporated between three to eight times additional signal power on those M-code signals to provide that additional anti-jam capability. Next, we talk about precision, navigation and timing — accuracy is paramount. We actually have about a factor of three improvement in the overall accuracy of the navigation signals on the satellite when compared with the Block 2s. International interoperability is a critical theme and we have made commitments to be interoperable with Galileo and other international systems. We will be the first to bring on the new L1C — this is the new civil signal that is interoperable with those other systems. From the user perspective, that means they have a receiver that receives the same signal from any of these constellations. That gives them many more satellites in the sky to give them a good, precise navigation and timing fix. In terms of the overall cost of the constellation, the longer a satellite lasts, the fewer satellites you have to procure. Now we have a 15-year satellite life design, which is an improvement over the existing satellites, which are between seven- and 12-year lifetime design satellites. All of those capabilities will be available on the first GPS 3 satellite.
A study has confirmed the feasibility of launching GPS 3 satellites two at a time, and yet there’s another study in the works. Why?
The first key aspect is really to lock down the design of the dual-satellite carrier that is designed and built by United Launch Alliance. And so a key product of the next phase of the study is to take that dual carrier to what we call a system requirements review level of maturity. That will essentially lay the groundwork to go into the full design cycle for the dual carrier. In addition, because you are launching two satellites at once, you need to be able to communicate from the ground with both of those satellites. That requires some upgrades to telemetry tracking and control hardware on the satellite to be able to communicate with both of them at the same time without having interference in those communications. There is also mission design work including the final orbit insertion and transfer orbit characteristics for both of those satellites as you look to put them into their final orbits. There is a fair amount of system engineering and mission analysis work that goes into that. We haven’t officially started that study yet but we are expecting to start that this month. The expectation is that work will be complete in early 2013 and the cost of the upfront dual-launch engineering will be more than recouped with the savings on the very first dual launch.