Global Positioning System:

Significant Challenges in Sustaining and Upgrading Widely Used Capabilities

GAO-09-325: Published: Apr 30, 2009. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 2009.

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The Global Positioning System (GPS), which provides positioning, navigation, and timing data to users worldwide, has become essential to U.S. national security and a key tool in an expanding array of public service and commercial applications at home and abroad. The United States provides GPS data free of charge. The Air Force, which is responsible for GPS acquisition, is in the process of modernizing GPS. In light of the importance of GPS, the modernization effort, and international efforts to develop new systems, GAO was asked to undertake a broad review of GPS. Specifically, GAO assessed progress in (1) acquiring GPS satellites, (2) acquiring the ground control and user equipment necessary to leverage GPS satellite capabilities, and evaluated (3) coordination among federal agencies and other organizations to ensure GPS missions can be accomplished. To carry out this assessment, GAO's efforts included reviewing and analyzing program documentation, conducting its own analysis of Air Force satellite data, and interviewing key military and civilian officials.

It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption. If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected. In recent years, the Air Force has struggled to successfully build GPS satellites within cost and schedule goals; it encountered significant technical problems that still threaten its delivery schedule; and it struggled with a different contractor. As a result, the current IIF satellite program has overrun its original cost estimate by about $870 million and the launch of its first satellite has been delayed to November 2009--almost 3 years late. Further, while the Air Force is structuring the new GPS IIIA program to prevent repeating mistakes made on the IIF program, the Air Force is aiming to deploy the next generation of GPS sa this schedule is optimistic, given the program's late start, past trends in space acquisitions, and challenges facing the new contracto tellites 3 years faster than the IIF satellites. GAO's analysis found that r. Of particular concern is leadership for GPS acquisition, as GAO and other studies have found the lack of a single point of authority for space programs and frequent turnover in program managers have hampered requirements setting, funding stability, and resource allocation. If the Air Force does not meet its schedule goals for development of GPS IIIA satellites, there will be an increased likelihood that in 2010, as old satellites begin to fail, the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to. Such a gap in capability could have wide-ranging impacts on all GPS users, though there are measures the Air Force and others can take to plan for and minimize these impacts. In addition to risks facing the acquisition of new GPS satellites, the Air Force has not been fully successful in synchronizing the acquisition and development of the next generation of GPS satellites with the ground control and user equipment, thereby delaying the ability of military users to fully utilize new GPS satellite capabilities. Diffuse leadership has been a contributing factor, given that there is no single authority responsible for synchronizing all procurements and fielding related to GPS, and funding has been diverted from ground programs to pay for problems in the space segment. DOD and others involved in ensuring GPS can serve communities beyond the military have taken prudent steps to manage requirements and coordinate among the many organizations involved with GPS. However, GAO identified challenges to ensuring civilian requirements and ensuring GPS compatibility with other new, potentially competing global space-based positioning, navigation, and timing systems.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, DOD concurred with this recommendation but has not taken any actions necessary to implement it. In its letter to GAO, DOD recognized the importance of a centralizing authority to oversee the continuing synchronized evolution of GPS, and reaffirmed that the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration is the Department's principle staff assistant to oversee Positioning, Navigation, and Timing, and, specifically, is designated with authority and responsibility for all aspects of GPS. This designation is contained in DOD Directive 4650.05, issued in February 2008. On November 24, 2009, DOD issued formal DOD Instruction 4650.06, "DOD Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Executive Committee and Working Groups." DOD stated that the instruction specifies that the committee and its working groups provide the means for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration to execute his/her assigned GPS responsibilities. However, neither the instruction or the directive specify a single authority to oversee the development of the GPS system, to include the DOD space, ground control, and user equipment assets. DOD plans no further action to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Because of the criticality of the GPS system and potential delays, and given the importance of GPS to the civil community, the Secretary of Defense should appoint a single authority to oversee the development of the GPS system, including DOD space, ground control, and user equipment assets, to ensure that the program is well executed and resourced and that potential disruptions are minimized. The appointee should have authority to ensure DOD space, ground control, and user equipment are synchronized to the maximum extent practicable; and coordinate with the existing positioning, navigation, and timing infrastructure to assess and minimize potential service disruptions should the satellite constellation decrease in size for an extended period of time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, DOT concurred with this recommendation. On May 26, 2010, the Secretaries of Defense and Transportation, as the co-chairs of the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing signed an updated GPS Interagency Forum for Operational Requirements Charter. The updated charter addresses the minimum documentation required to be included in a proposed new GPS requirement package submitted to the Interagency Forum for Operational Requirements. According to a Department of Transportation official, the revised document answers concerns expressed by the civil community in the past. Since GPS requirements are a subset of PNT requirements, the Department of Transportation is also working with civil agencies to identify positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) requirements which represent their stakeholder needs. According to a Department of Transportation official, many civil agencies have never documented overarching PNT requirements before, other than specifying a system solution such as GPS. PNT requirements are now being reviewed as part of the civil PNT requirements process.

    Recommendation: Because of the criticality of the GPS system and potential delays, and given the importance of GPS to the civil community, the Secretaries of Defense and Transportation, as the co-chairs of the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing, should address, if weaknesses are found, civil agency concerns for developing requirements, and determine mechanisms for improving collaboration and decision making and strengthening civil agency participation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, DOD concurred with this recommendation. In its letter to GAO, DOD stated that it has worked with civil agencies to put in place a GPS Interagency Requirements Plan. DOD stated that it will continue to seek ways to improve civil agency understanding of the DOD requirements process and work to strengthen civil agency participation. On May 26, 2010, the Secretaries of Defense and Transportation, as the co-chairs of the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing signed an updated GPS Interagency Forum for Operational Requirements Charter. The GPS Interagency Forum for Operational Requirements is the entry point for civilian requirements for GPS. The updated charter addresses the minimum documentation required to be included in a proposed new GPS requirement package submitted to the Interagency Forum for Operational Requirements.

    Recommendation: Because of the criticality of the GPS system and potential delays, and given the importance of GPS to the civil community, the Secretaries of Defense and Transportation, as the co-chairs of the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing, should address, if weaknesses are found, civil agency concerns for developing requirements, and determine mechanisms for improving collaboration and decision making and strengthening civil agency participation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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