The Air Force said work on a new ground control system for GPS 3 satellites has triggered a Nunn-McCurdy breach. | Credit: Raytheon video grab

WASHINGTON — Raytheon says it passed the first of three upcoming tests in developing the initial capabilities for the ground control system that will run the Air Force’s next-generation of GPS satellites.

Raytheon is the prime contractor on the $4.1 billion GPS Operational Control Segment, known as OCX. The program, which U.S. military officials have labeled the Defense Department’s most troubled development program, is expected to be completed in July 2021, or about six years later than original projections.

The delay has been a sore point for Air Force and Defense Department leaders, who say that because of the lag they will be unable to immediately leverage the full capabilities of the GPS 3 satellites, which include better accuracy and higher-power signals.

In an April 12 press release, Raytheon said OCX passed its first formal qualification test March 4. That test was for OCX’s launch and checkout system, referred to as Block 0, which is used for deployment of GPS 3 satellites.

“The completion of this test milestone validates the maturity of the OCX launch and checkout system,” Bill Sullivan, Raytheon’s OCX program director, said in the release. “As a result of strong collaboration with the Air Force, we were able to demonstrate the system’s performance and increase confidence in the program’s path ahead.”

The test, which is formally known as the Configuration Item Qualification Test, took place about a month earlier than called than in a schedule revised just last year.

Raytheon said the Block 0 portion of the OCX program includes 77 percent of the program’s improved cyber capabilities, which is one of the ground system’s key features.

Raytheon still needs to pass a factory qualification test, scheduled for this summer, and a site acceptance test, whose date was not immediately available, before completing the first portion of the OCX program.

The Block 0 capabilities provide a necessary foundation for the GPS 3 program.

The first GPS 3 satellite is expected to launch no earlier than 2017. If the next portion of the OCX program, known as Block 1, and which provides the command and control of GPS 2 and GPS 3 satellites, is not yet available by then, the Air Force could turn to Lockheed Martin, which was awarded a $96 million contract  to prepare for “contingency operations.”

But the OCX program builds on incremental capabilities and Air Force would need Block 0 to be successful before it could potentially hand over the GPS 3 satellites to Lockheed Martin as part of a contingency plan to command and control the satellites.

The Air Force told SpaceNews it could launch as many as four GPS 3 satellites before OCX Block 1 is complete.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.