Lockheed Martin GPS 3F satellite rendering.
Rendering of a GPS 3F satellite. Credit: Lockheed Martin Credit: Lockheed Martin

WASHINGTON — Members of a key advisory board questioned the U.S. military’s commitment to deliver enhancements to the Global Positioning System, arguing that the network is at risk of falling behind other satellite navigation systems built by Europe and China.  

The critique came at last week’s annual meeting of the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board. 

Following a presentation by Col. Andrew Menschner, head of the Space Force unit that oversees GPS operations and sustainment, board vice chair Bradford Parkinson said the panel is disappointed by a lack of U.S. government funding for a planned GPS enhancement called High Accuracy and Robustness Service (HARS), a proposed augmentation that would provide improved accuracy and robustness to GPS signals. 

Formerly the chief architect of GPS, Parkinson also questioned why there are still not enough satellites broadcasting the civilian L5 GPS signal, designed to meet demanding requirements for safety-of-life transportation and other high-performance applications.

Without sufficient resources and leadership advocacy, he said, there is valid concern that GPS — which provides navigation positioning and timing (PNT) data to more than six billion users across the world — is in danger of losing its edge at a time when competitors are rising. 

The PNT Advisory Board, which held its 29th annual meeting on Dec. 6, provides independent advice to the U.S. government on GPS-related policy, planning, program management and funding.

Menschner’s presentation to the board focused on the recent consolidation of the Space Force’s PNT units into a so-called Integrated Mission Delta that brings together GPS satellite and ground-system operators, maintainers, trainers and developers of new technologies. The Space Systems Command that oversees procurement of major systems, including GPS satellites, also activated a new PNT-focused System Delta to create a closer connection between procurement offices and satellite operators.

“The idea is that by better integrating the operations and acquisition side of the house, we speed delivery of capability and optimize it for operations,” Menschner said. 

“We’ve had some very early successes,” he said. “It gives a direct voice from the operator community into the acquisition process. And that’s already proving its worth when it comes to the OCX program,” 

OCX is the next-generation ground system for the GPS constellation. 

Parkinson didn’t have an issue with the reorganization but did challenge the Space Force Space Systems Command’s decision to combine the procurement of PNT and military communications satellites under one program office. 

“In the old days one could identify the belly button of the head of GPS exclusively with a focus on navigation,” he said. 

Menschner explained that the reorganization of the PNT delta — based at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado — is separate from the Los Angeles-based Space Systems Command organization, where PNT is part of a combined satcom and PNT program office.

Parkinson insisted that this is a problem because “advocacy and energy” are spread across navigation and communications programs. 

“Whatever the gold standard once meant, I am unconvinced that you’re on a path that’s going to continue to make you the first among peers,” he said. There are capabilities that the PNT Advisory Board believes GPS needs and have not been funded, he added. “I’m thinking, for example, of the full activation of L5.” 

Currently only 17 of the 31 GPS satellites in orbit are L5 capable. L5 has been transmitting since 2014 as a pre-operational signal for testing purposes, but it won’t be fully operational until the Space Force completes the development and fielding of new OCX ground stations. The long-delayed OCX has been in development for decades and is now scheduled to be operational by 2025. 

These issues are concerning, said Parkinson, as other satellite navigation networks like Europe’s Galileo and China’s Beidou could over time outpace GPS in capability and service quality.  

Menschner said the concept of the integrated mission delta is to “allow myself as a commander to advocate for the things that are necessary to keep the PNT mission area operating and to continue to push capabilities which must be developed in the future.”

“We are still working through the requirements and through the processes,” he told Parkinson. “But your point is well taken that that’s one we need to not lose in the reorganization process.”

The PNT Advisory Board, said Parkinson, will try to better understand the Space Force reorganization but remains concerned about a lack of clear “lines of command” and advocacy for “the real future, the things that we think should be done to at least stay equal with Beidou and Galileo, because right now we’re slipping behind.”

“This is no reflection on you,” Parkinson told Menschner. “I think this is way above your pay grade and I really appreciate you coming in here.”

GPS 3 and follow-on plans

The most advanced GPS satellites in service today are the GPS 3 version, made by Lockheed Martin. There are currently six GPS 3 in orbit as part of the 31-satellite GPS constellation. Four additional GPS 3 satellites have been manufactured and are awaiting launch opportunities. The satellites are in storage at Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Colorado. 

“We understand, as the Space Force, the importance of our civil partners, and we are certainly committed to providing services,” Menschner said. “We currently have 31 vehicles broadcasting, plus six residual vehicles. That certainly lends itself to the idea that GPS is a robust and secure constellation.”

“It’s not often that we end up with four completed vehicles ready for launch,” he said. “We’re excited to have them on orbit. We just need a ride.”

On the OCX program, he said the latest round of developmental testing has been successful. “We are tracking towards a delivery in June of 2024 and transitioning to operations in February 2025,” Menschner added. “We’re looking forward to a full operating capability for L5 broadcast.” 

He also mentioned the Space Force is procuring more advanced GPS 3F satellites to be launched later this decade. These will have higher levels of anti-jam protection and a redesigned nuclear detonation detection system, as well as a new search and rescue payload. 

“We’re partnering with the Air Force Research Laboratory for future technology opportunities,” said Menschner. “The way this development is being structured is to allow for technology insertions at key points along the production timeline of up to 22 vehicles.” The first GPS 3F is projected to launch in 2027.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...