An SOS for GPS: Act Now, Or the Entire System Risks Collapse

Vadim Georgiev/

Aging satellites have begun to fail, and many still in operation are already past their estimated lifespans.

John Breeden II is a columnist for Nextgov and an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

I’d like to begin this new column with the dire warning that the sky is falling, and not just because this is my first official regular column I’m writing for Nextgov. Yes, I no longer have “guest” as part of my title and will now be able to bring you what is hopefully informative and entertaining columns on a regular basis right here at the world’s best government-focused technology magazine.

For those of you who don’t know me all that well yet, my background is deep in technology, especially the really geeky stuff that can sometimes make your (and my) head spin. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for some impressive publications in a review capacity over the past twenty years, and gotten my hands on a lot of interesting products and services aimed at both the federal government and the private sector.

If you have any ideas or column topics you would like me to research, review, explain or comment on, please let me know and I’ll do my best to bring them to you. You can email me directly at or simply type into the comments area at the bottom of the article. I look forward to working with you all.

Now that we know each other a little bit better, I feel comfortable letting you in on an embarrassing little secret that goes back to my warning at the top of this piece.

You see, I tend to get lost a lot. I’m not sure why my sense of direction is so bad, but even back when I was a cub reporter working in little Calvert County, Maryland, after college, I would often miss breaking news because I simply couldn’t find the incident in time. Arriving at a house fire after it’s burned to the ground or an accident after it’s been cleared isn’t all that exciting, a fact that used to drive my editor crazy. Yet, no amount of one-handed driving while gripping the Rand McNally Atlas in the other would ever get me there any quicker.

Given my history, I was as happy as anyone years later when the military began to develop its Global Positioning System, a satellite-based timing, positioning and navigation system used by the military to guide troop movements, assist with logistics support and situational awareness, guide missiles and bombs, and synchronize communications networks. And I was even happier when they began to share that data with civilian applications.

Today, raw GPS is even enhanced by third-party programs like Google Maps, which can overlay street and traffic data onto the signal to direct users where they need to go by the fastest route currently available. But as pervasive as this technology is for civilians, and as useful as it is for the military, it nonetheless is a lot more fragile than most people realize. In fact, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the entire system is in danger of collapse by 2020 if several steps are not immediately taken.

There are several factors working against GPS, with the biggest one being the need to maintain 24 satellites in specific orbits to maintain global coverage for the system. Right now, there are about 40, so we are above that minimum with a bit of a cushion, but there used to be even more.

According to the report, aging satellites have begun to fail, and many still in operation are already past their estimated lifespans. New GPS satellites are planned for launch in May of 2017, which will be four years behind schedule at that point if they go up as planned.

But even if those new satellites were launched tonight, they wouldn’t be able to keep the GPS system functioning because of problems with the new Operational Control System, or OCX, software meant to modernize the system. The new satellites can’t be controlled using the old software, yet no working version of OCX currently exists.

The GAO report lays the blame for this with the Air Force and the contractor on the OCX program, Raytheon.

“By any measure, OCX development has been mired in development difficulties resulting in steady cost growth and schedule delays,” GAO examiners wrote. “Moreover, despite a 7-month pause ending in mid-2014, OCX has yet to turn the corner on resolving the problems that have affected the program since development began in 2010.”

And GAO does not paint a very rosy picture about the future of OCX, either. Specifically, the report states that “OCX issues appear to be persistent and systemic, raising doubts whether all root causes have been adequately identified, let alone addressed, and whether realistic cost and schedule estimates have been developed.”

In addition to problems with the economy should the system fail, the military would like to give its troops a better GPS system that will rely on OCX and the new satellites. Right now, the new Military GPS User Equipment isn’t scheduled to be fully deployed until 2025, though that could easily get pushed back if problems with OCX drag on, not to mention what might happen should GPS fail all together.

GPS is an incredibly important system for the United States, its military, its economy and even its otherwise lost-around-town columnists. It’s too important to let one contractor mess up the entire system. If Raytheon can turn things around, fine. But if not, then it’s time to rebid the contract competitively and let someone else take a crack it. There is too much riding on GPS to do otherwise.

(Image via Vadim Georgiev/