A friend recently told me he didn’t need satellites because he already had a GPS service embedded in his cell phone.

GPS has become so ingrained into society that people, like my friend, often forget about the complex system of satellites, ground control and user equipment it takes to deliver the service to billions of people around the globe daily, free of charge.

The system is a great success and huge strength for the United States. But if we aren’t careful, that same strength can quickly become a weakness.

To date, thanks to government support, Defense Department expertise and industry innovation, the United States has a constellation of GPS satellites and ground stations literally changing the world. The free, open and reliable nature of GPS led to the development of thousands of applications affecting every aspect of modern life.

GPS technology is found in everything from cell phones and wristwatches to shipping containers and ATMs. The system boosts productivity across many areas of the economy, and the technology is embedded in virtually every U.S. military asset, making our armed forces safer and more effective.

As far as an investment for our country, GPS is about as good as it gets. Originally envisioned just for military use, GPS now delivers a reported $68 billion of direct economic benefits to our nation each year, and a reported 3.3 million U.S. jobs rely on GPS technology. With precise navigation offered by GPS, the agriculture industry realizes $19.9 billion in annual savings and productivity gains, and the transportation industry nets an estimated $126.4 billion in labor, capital and fuel savings.

Saving money is good. Saving lives is better. GPS takes the search out of search and rescue — making our disaster and emergency response faster. For the military, GPS provides pinpoint location services for men and women overseas when and where it matters most. And our modern missiles are guided with precision ensuring we hit the target and only the target.

GPS has changed our world, but its health and stability are not guaranteed. The satellites on orbit are aging quickly, the ground system is becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber attack, and users are demanding more capability.

Adversaries are working aggressively to eliminate our GPS combat advantage, and recent news reports show a growing vulnerability to GPS jamming. These new threats require higher signal power, more accuracy, better availability and increased Earth coverage. As the GPS demand evolves, so must our system. The satellite constellation needs to be sustained, it needs to be modernized, and in this economic environment, it needs to be done affordably.

The U.S. Air Force has the answer to meet these challenges — and Congress must continue to support this investment into the future. Through its GPS modernization effort, the Air Force is four years into a much-needed upgrade to include the next generation of GPS satellites, known as GPS 3; the Next Generation Operational Control System, known as OCX; and new military user equipment.

As these programs continue in production and the first GPS 3 satellite nears launch readiness in 2014, GPS 3 and OCX are the most predictable, lowest risk and most affordable means to secure a bright future for GPS and our nation.

By improving accuracy, enhancing anti-jam capability, bolstering cybersecurity and enabling international interoperability, the Air Force’s GPS modernization plan will deliver a number of critical upgrades ensuring our troops can operate safely on battlefields of tomorrow. Those same upgrades will act as a catalyst for profound new business and economic applications as the open market continues to innovate new ways to use GPS.

Together, the private and public sector created a system benefitting us all every day. It is one of the greatest examples of what collaboration can do to improve the status quo. It is a huge success story, but most don’t know how it was written. We cannot take GPS for granted, and we cannot get complacent. At a time when our world depends more and more on GPS, we cannot afford to let the system let us down. To propel our economic business engine and ensure national security, we must continue to fund the sustainment and modernization of GPS.


U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) represents the state’s 7th District.