GPS 3. Credit: Lockheed Martin

WASHINGTON — The Air Force is running an open-source project for anyone that has ideas on how to improve the Global Positioning System, the service’s top acquisition official said March 16.

The initiative, called a “Plug Fest,” is trying “to get traditional and nontraditional industry partners to work on smaller projects in an environment where we can solve a quick problem, we can get it out to the field in a more timely manner,” said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the military deputy for the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.

“Our intent is to have an open design so that as technology changes or the threat changes, we can integrate a new capability quicker and get it out to the field with less testing and we don’t have to go through a long developmental program,” Bunch said, speaking at a breakfast hosted by the Air Force Association.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Jr., Military Deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. Credit: Air Force
Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Jr., Military Deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. Credit: Air Force

The focus now is on building applications that can easily be plugged into an open GPS architecture to improve the usage of the position, navigation, and timing system, or enhance its resiliency, the general said.

“What we’ve created is the environment where we can test different apps that you can put into this open system architecture,” Bunch said. “Then what we will do is go out and we’ll find out what are some innovative ways that we can do this and make it more resilient, or to give me an alternative source of navigation and timing. How would I go through that aspect to be able to make it work?”

It’s an experimental test program to see “how innovative are people being” when working with GPS, he said.

Ideas like the Plug Fest are part of the Air Force’s efforts “to look for ways to speed up our [acquisition] processes,” Bunch said. “We continue to look for ways to streamline and go faster…This is going to cause a change in a lot of the ways that we do our business, it’s going to cause us to have to relook at how we do our test, how we do our requirements, how we do our fielding on these software-intensive programs to make sure we do a better job.”

The Air Force is looking to “normalize” space acquisitions and operations, Bunch said, similar to what standards look like for other domains. He noted that many space systems have previously been treated as a “one-off” rather than as part of an architecture.

“What we talk about is normalizing the space domain more along the lines of what we do with the other domains,” Bunch said. “We want to standardize how we do the requirements.”

That will also require normalizing “the way that space requirements are generated,” he said, which means drawing up military documents known as concepts of operations, or ConOps, that lay out a plan for the development and usage of a particular mission or domain.

A ConOps will help “normalize how space is operationalized and how we control it, and that feed into then how we want to do the acquisition,” Bunch said.

Launch is not quite there yet

On March 14, the Air Force awarded a contract for a GPS 3 launch to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, meaning there’s now two companies — SpaceX and United Launch Alliance — that will launch high-priority national security payloads.

The Pentagon has set the goal of having two domestic launch service providers for any national security asset it needs to launch into orbit. But Bunch said that requirement hasn’t quite been met yet as the company’s Falcon Heavy isn’t certified yet for national security launches.

“If you look at what SpaceX is doing today, they do not have a qualified heavy launch service, so in some orbits right now in some ways I have two, in other ways you’ve got to look at the viability of some of those options,” Bunch said, adding that he did not want to narrow everything down to one industry partner in particular as many companies are working on developing the ability to reach orbit.

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...