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Countdown is on for GPS 3 launch. Stakes high for U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX

SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

The United States did not launch any new Global Positioning System satellites in 2017. If all goes as planned, the Air Force should have one new GPS 3 satellite in orbit before the end of 2018.

The first vehicle of the GPS 3 constellation arrived at Cape Canaveral on Aug. 20 in anticipation of a Dec. 15 launch. Manufacturer Lockheed Martin shipped the satellite from Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, to the Cape on a massive Air Force C-17 aircraft.

ROCKET DELAYS The launch date for the first GPS 3 already has slipped several months to allow more time to test SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5. The date was moved “by mutual agreement” to Dec. 15, a spokesman for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said in a statement, confirming what Bloomberg News reported earlier this month.

“Qualification testing of Falcon 9 Block 5 for this mission is nearly complete,” said the spokesman. The Air Force and SpaceX agreed that a Dec. 15 target date was sufficient time to “accommodate finishing qualification testing, late-breaking requirement changes and to complete independent verification and validation activities.”

MUCH IS ON THE LINE To say this will be a critical launch for all parties involved would be an understatement. Falcon 9 needs to get off to a good start after winning five of the first six GPS 3 launches. Lockheed Martin is building a 10-satellite constellation and has been trying to make up for lost time following a string of delays that set the program back by several years and hundreds of millions of dollars. “Once on orbit, the advanced technology of this first GPS 3 space vehicle will begin playing a major role in the Air Force’s plan to modernize the GPS satellite constellation,” said Johnathon Caldwell, Lockheed Martin’s program manager for Navigation Systems. The second satellite was declared “available for launch” last week and stands ready to be called up for a 2019 launch.

MORE RESILIENCY With U.S. satellites said to be vulnerable to electronic attacks such as jamming and spoofing, Air Force leaders have been under pressure to get an improved, more secure GPS constellation in orbit. GPS 3 has a much stronger signal and an entirely new design. It will have three times greater accuracy and up to eight times more anti-jamming capabilities than the existing GPS satellites. The Air Force also is working on a more cyber-secure GPS 3 ground segment, OCX, which has been plagued by delays and overruns. GPS 3 will be the first satellite to broadcast the new L1C civil signal that is shared by other international global navigation satellite systems, like Galileo.


A rumor that had been circulating for months has been confirmed by BBC News: The U.K. government will spend more than $100 million to study the possibility of building its own satellite navigation system. Brexit could end Britain’s participation in Galileo, Europe’s answer to the U.S. GPS system. The dust up over Galileo is over whether the U.K. can continue to gain access to sensitive European data and perform Galileo work in the U.K. after Brexit.

The European Commission voted in early 2018 to relocate the Galileo backup monitoring center from Swanwick, U.K., to Spain.

Europe is taking a hard line on Galileo as it moves to increase its global share of positioning, navigation and timing satellites orbiting the Earth. It now operates 18 percent of the world’s PNT satellites, with 22 Galileo spacecraft in orbit by the end of 2017. “While still shy of the minimum 24 operational Galileo satellites required for global coverage, Europe expects to reach that goal by 2020,” according to an annual industry trends report by the nonprofit Space Foundation.

GLOBAL PNT GROWTH The ongoing Galileo row is a reminder of how vital these satellites have become to the global economy. The population of PNT satellites grew by 6 percent in 2017 as a result of Chinese, European, Indian, Japanese, and Russian efforts to either expand or maintain national PNT fleets. Overall PNT satellite numbers increased from 113 in 2016 to 120 in 2017. The United States remained the leader in the number of PNT satellites, but China’s 2017 launch efforts tied the nation with Russia for the second-largest share of PNT satellites in orbit.


As the Pentagon looks for ways to expedite the acquisition of emerging technologies, the use of “other transactions” authorities, or OTAs, have gained popularity. These agreements, first created about two decades ago, come with less red tape and are structured so that the contractor and the government share the cost of developing and prototyping a system. Bloomberg Government estimates the Defense Department has 150 active OTAs, which combined have generated $5.8 billion in spending. But there are downsides. “Because OTAs aren’t subject to traditional acquisition regulations, they carry a greater risk of project failure,” BGOV analysts said.

DARPA ROBOT More OTA deals are now being signed for space projects. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency pioneered the use of OTAs and has been a proponent of these agreements. One is a public-private partnership the agency struck with satellite manufacturer SSL for the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, or RSGS, a satellite servicing robot that DARPA says will be launched in 2021.

The program has been in the news because of proposed cuts to the Air Force launch budget that could impact RSGS. The Trump administration objected to the cuts, partly because this is not a traditional government satellite program, and much of the risk is carried by a private company. SSL is providing the satellite bus, the operations center and the ground-based communications network. If somehow the RSGS program didn’t pan out as planned, it could deter future partnerships

WHO BEARS MORE RISK? Former Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall said OTAs were originally limited to R&D and prototyping, but recently Congress expanded them to production deals. OTAs were designed to encourage participation by nontraditional companies but are now being used more widely. “The thing is that everyone is happy when the contract is signed but when things go wrong, they start looking at the fine print in the contract and someone is going to be unhappy,” Kendall told WJLA’s Government Matters. “They are best used when there is a built-in incentive to perform, and you don’t have to worry about enforcing the terms of the contract too much because there is already a business case.”


Vice President Mike Pence has been insistent that the Space Force is coming in 2020. But that could be wishful thinking at best. The Congressional Research Service warns that the potential costs and personnel disruptions caused by standing up a new service are “likely to play in important ways that could take time to fully understand.”

The issue has become more complicated and more politicized since President Trump told the Pentagon ‘go do it.’ There are multiple proposals on the table, and there is some confusion about the Defense Department and the White House not speaking with a single voice on the issue. “Inconsistencies between these various executive branch proposals have puzzled some observers and Congress could play a major role in adjudicating among them,” CRS says. “Given the long-standing nature of the debate over how space assets should be managed, some observers view recent proposals as initial positions in a longer-term negotiation.”

Creating a new service could get even messier because there is still no agreement on what the primary mission of the Space Force should be.

“There is true danger that an Air Force-heavy space culture will focus too much on the direct combat side of space, rather than on the support side of space, and that support will begin to erode.”

Doug Loverro, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy.

Loverro draws a parallel with the creation of the U.S. Air Force more than 60 years ago, when concerns emerged that the new service would concentrate on air warfare at the expense of close-air support to troops on the ground. “There is a risk that we could see, with the separation of a space force, like what we saw happen with the separation of the air force,” he said. The space force could end up paying too much attention to the space battle, “which is important but not as important as supporting terrestrial forces.”

Critics also have questioned the need for an expensive new bureaucracy. “We have to be careful about what we include in the Space Force,” said Loverro.“There is no rule that says every service must have its own academy, its own cooks, cops, or reserve component,’ Loverro said. “We need to not fall into the trap that if we create a Space Force, all these things must come with it.” Pentagon officials have said it is unlikely that a Space Force can be funded entirely from existing accounts. So what gets cut to pay for the Space Force? Will Congress add more money to the DoD budget? Solving these issues will require bipartisan compromise, something that is hard to envision in the current political climate.

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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...