GPS Tracking — Is The Sky Really Falling?

I’ve been meaning to post on this current issue for a few days now.  I came across this excellent summary from my blogging colleague John Ewing, the Aviation Mentor, so I might as well point it out to you and avoid covering a lot of the ground that John has already written informatively and sensibly on.

Constellation GPS I particularly like John’s blog as he is one of a select few who actually writes about some of the real-world uses of GPS rather than the toy aspects so many focus on.  GPS is so much more than a dashboard car navigator or a pocket caching device, and it’s hard to explain things so that the average person gets the picture.

John is a professional pilot and Gold Seal flight instructor and he specializes in modern aircraft “glass dashes” which typically include integrated GPS systems.  Usually worth a read even if you don’t have wings.

The issue at hand is that the US General Accounting Office (GAO) has recently released a report Global Positioning System: Significant Challenges in Sustaining and Upgrading Widely Used Capabilities that is pretty critical of the USAF (the folks who actual build and run the GPS for the world) and in particular their efforts in getting the IIF (Block I Follow-on) birds built, tested and launched.

As a former USAF employee, directly involved with the GPS program since the days there was only one satellite on orbit, I’m a bit troubled too.  I’m disappointed by two things, two issues that are in some ways diametrically opposed to each other.

First I have been troubled for years by the way senior levels of US government have treated the NAVSTAR program.  I am a firm believer that my former USAF colleagues can accomplish most any reasonable task, but the mission of the USAF is to fly and fight.  The GPS is a national, nay, world public utility, and it’s contrary to logic and good leadership practices to just tell the USAF, “Okay general, while you are at it, promoting political change in SW Asia, providing the only space object catalog orbital control utility for the world and keeping those 50 year old KC-135 tankers in the air, take care of this little GPS project too.” 

The GPS, like the Internet, is another US military project that has expanded beyond all rational expectations and is being left to run as best it can.  Where is the higher level national interest and the world interest in these now essential international systems.  The European Union over the past few years have shown true “raised middle finger” leadership by wasting billions of Euros on their competitive and ill-advised Galileo program, essential just so they can be ‘different’.  What is needed her is cooperative leadership, not national pride and flag waving.  This deserves attention at much higher levels than the GAO.

As an aside I get a bit of a chuckle out of John’s concerns about the age of the current GPS constellation … “That means about a third of the GPS satellites are between 12 and 19 years old; a sobering thought” … valid concern, but how much more sobering to consider the age of the existing USAF aircraft and missile combat forces .. the GPS turns out to be one of the youngest and most technology ‘fresh’ systems out there.

The second issue that concerns me that the GAO report draws attention to at the intellectual level is faulty expectations.  The GPS today is exceeding expectations in virtually all aspects.  The life of the satellites has been prolonged far beyond the dreams of the original designers … to a large degree by the ingenuity and dedication of the folks in the 2 SOPS out there on the barren eastern plains of Colorado.  As an example, technicians in the 2 SOPS developed a technique years ago to ‘recondition’ batteries aboard the satellites remotely … one significant factor in the record levels of longevity. 

Also, since the first Gulf war, the accuracy of the navigation solution in the areas of combat has been greatly enhanced by ‘touching’ each bird (making more frequent ground to space contacts to enhance clock accuracy) bringing the overall accuracy in the area of interest up to better than 5 times the system specified figure.  A side effect from this work has been a sort of artificial world-wide increase in observed performance, leading to greater and greater expectations. 

USAF 2 SOPS logo How would anyone actually codify these efforts much less write them into a contract to operate the system?  My fear is, at some date that may be closer than we think, the Air Force is going to be forced to cut back on this labor-intensive ‘hand tuning’ and the system overall will revert to a level of performance far closer to its design document specifications.  The USAF will still be doing a highly creditable job … they always do .. but there may be a lot of customers who have grown used to getting a lot of extra performance for free that may become quite disappointed.

Here’s a great resource that shows a lot of data about the age of the GPS fleet.  Some areas for concern?  Indeed, but fear not, I think the system will stay healthy through the foreseeable future … there are a lot of my former colleagues, Civil Service, officer, enlisted and contractor personnel who are well aware of how critical the GPS is, even though it is actually so far outside their “job description”.  Hat’s off, guys, sometimes I wish I was still there.