The U.S. Air Force awarded Raytheon a $886 million contract in 2010 to develop the next-generation GPS ground system, or GPS OXC. Credit: Raytheon graphic

Mankind’s most revolutionary technical achievements are those which satisfy an existing need and then expand to become a dominant and integral factor in the everyday aspects of life. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is such an achievement.

Ask any warfighter and you will be told that GPS is essential to all aspects of the profession of arms. Command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance broadly encompass the various aspects in the use of military force; all of which now rely on a functional and reliable GPS system.

Ask someone outside of the military about the value of GPS and you will hear about the reliance on GPS for travel.  The US aviation industry considers GPS critical to its safety, efficiency, and routing.  Private citizens and businesses use GPS on their smart phones, for recreation, safety, directions, tracking and delivery. GPS is wholly intertwined in our daily lives.

As with all technology, GPS is aging. Over the past few years, the Air Force, which mans this vital technology for our nation, embarked on a two-part upgrade of the system, including a next generation Operational Control System (OCX), and series of satellites (GPS 3A) that will improve its accuracy and security.

Upgrading and modernizing a system of this scale is daunting and expensive. Cyber-hardening a system like GPS has never been done before and the programs have faced major developmental challenges.

The cost of the GPS 3 satellites is now estimated to be more than $4.5 billion and the OCX component cost is to be more than $4 billion.  These cost overruns are due to a number of factors including complicated engineering and development, and production delays. Fielding of the entire system is nearly two years behind schedule.

Detractors claim OCX and GPS 3 are no longer the correct fix because of the developmental challenges, delays and growing costs. Recently, Congress has threatened to cut nearly all funding for the upgrade.

However, cyber threats are ever expanding.  The enemy does not sleep.  He may be in a bunker somewhere in Moscow, or in a tent on a hillside in Helmand province, but he is vigilant, patient, determined, and deadly.  He will constantly work to cripple our assets and achieve victory; consequently, we must innovate and stay ahead of the threat.  Playing “catch up” is unacceptably dangerous, and having our GPS system compromised would result in inestimable recovery costs.

The benefits of a new GPS system cannot be ignored.  The challenges of mismanagement, engineering, and operations can, and are, being solved.  This nation has overcome these types of challenges in the past.  In June, GPS OCX passed another round of qualification and critical design review milestones.

Doubters should remember the lessons from the development of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter.  Former Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), then chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, halted production of the new fighter and threatened to cancel the program if changes and real progress were not made immediately.  The outcome was heightened attention by the military, several in-depth reviews of management and requirements, and a revised production schedule.  The result was production of the world’s deadliest and most capable fighter aircraft.

The GPS system is at the crossroads.  However, Congress jeopardizing funding for the continuation of the system could bring that progress to a screeching halt, at the expense of military, private citizens and businesses across the country.

Real progress on the GPS system is evident and the need to modernize and secure it is overwhelming, both to the warfighter and our society.  Common sense dictates we go forward with the program and not falter in the face of adversity. Careful management and responsible oversight will continue to ensure its success. We cannot afford to rely on status quo systems. Geopolitics and evolving threats require an innovative approach to GPS in order to maintain a strategic advantage. GPS OCX helps ensure we stay ahead of our rivals and reap the benefits of a proven system and a wise investment of national assets.

Victor Tambone was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as the first Chief of Staff, Science and Technology Directorate, US Department of Homeland Security. Col. Tambone served for 24 years in the Air Force. He retired with more than 3,000 flying hours. He is the founder and owner of Corvus Strategies, LLC, which provides strategic planning and management consulting to businesses in the homeland security and defense industries.