A U.S. Space Force technician conducts GPS interference training with a GPS electromagnetic attack system at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado. U.S. adversaries will attempt to jam GPS signals during conflicts. Credit: SpaceNews photo illustration/U.S. Space Force photo by Ethan Johnson

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is reviewing ideas from the private sector on how to augment the Global Positioning System constellation with smaller, lower-cost satellites.

The Space Force’s procurement arm, the Space Systems Command, last month issued a request for information probing the capabilities of the private sector to design a a more affordable GPS spacecraft that is also interoperable with existing GPS infrastructure.

A network of 31 GPS satellites 12,000 miles above Earth broadcast positioning, navigation and timing signals.

The military’s current GPS spacecraft are built by Lockheed Martin. The company last year delivered the 10th and final of the GPS III model produced under a 2008 contract.

Lockheed Martin is now making a more advanced version of the GPS III, called GPS IIIF. The Air Force in 2018 awarded Lockheed Martin a contract worth $7.2 billion for up to 22 GPS IIIF satellites. Ten have been ordered so far.

No changes in the current program

The Space Systems Command said Feb. 29 in a statement to SpaceNews that the GPS IIIF program remains unchanged and the recent RFI is intended to “inform future requirements.”

Companies were asked to submit concepts for a demonstration of smaller and cheaper GPS satellites that would “inform future planning for the GPS enterprise,” SSC said. “There is no formal follow-on to the GPS IIIF program at this time.”

The request for information and market research follow recent guidance by the Space Force’s top buyer Frank Calvelli who has urged military procurement program managers to use smaller satellites and harness commercial space products for national security needs. 

The Space Systems Command asked for “capability statements from potential sources for development, integration, and delivery for launch of a rapidly prototyped Global Positioning System navigation satellite with an objective to significantly reduce size, weight, power, and cost, reduce production time and time to orbit.”

These smaller payloads would operate in medium Earth orbit like the current GPS constellation. A key caveat is that they have to be interoperable with existing and future GPS receivers and user equipment “while minimizing change to current and future GPS ground control segments.”

The Space Systems Command said it has not yet set any timelines for awarding contracts for any demonstrations. 

A ‘complement’ to GPS

Eric Brown, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for mission strategy and advanced capabilities, said the company views the Space Force’s market research as a “complement to the core GPS III and GPS IIIF program of record.”

“From a Lockheed Martin perspective, we see an opportunity to potentially accelerate the fielding of the constellation and the overall recapitalization of the GPS enterprise,” Brown told SpaceNews

Brown noted that the space segment of the GPS system “is almost the easy part. The hard part is making sure that you’ve got a common set of user equipment that has been fielded broadly enough to get the benefits of what the satellites provide.” 

“The big challenge that we have to be mindful of is to have continuity in the user equipment,” Brown said. 

DoD for years has struggled with the development and production of GPS receivers which have lagged behind satellite deployments. The Pentagon over the years has added security features to GPS, including a stronger signal that is more jam-resistant than civilian signals. The more powerful signals are broadcast by the newer GPS satellites but most U.S. military forces can’t take advantage of the technology because compatible receivers are not widely available. 

Separately from the GPS program, the Space Force is doing market research to identify commercial navigation technologies that could be integrated into military systems to augment or back up GPS in case of outages or jamming attacks. 

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...