The Hidden GPS III Speed Bump

The Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center has hit another speed bump in the development of the next-generation Global Positioning System satellites. But to find out, you need to start the day reading, and then deciphering, obscure contract notices on the GSA’s Federal Business Opportunities Web site.

Last week the Space and Missile Systems Center announced it intended to award sole source contracts to Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which are competing for the multi-billion GPS III contract, for something called “GPS Phase A Sub System Risk Reduction.”

Buried in that contract notice is the speed bump: a line that says that the GPS III Key Decision Point-B has been delayed from August until December. If you want to know what that means, it’s easy to find out if you happen to have, hanging around the office, a copy of chapter 39, Title 10 of the U.S Code, section 2366a.

That code says, in quite plain English, that any major Defense Department project cannot proceed unless higher-ups in the Pentagon determine that the program is affordable, that its technology has been demonstrated in a relevant environment and the program demonstrates a “high likelihood” of accomplishing its intended mission.

In the case of GPS III, this includes a constellation of higher powered satellites that have jam-resistant capabilities for military users and new civilian signals to support civilian users, such as the FAA, which plans to base its new air traffic control system on GPS.

The Space and Missile Systems Center sugar-coated this delay by saying that the Risk Reduction contracts awarded to Boeing and Lockheed will provide them with additional time for system design work, including mature space system design and navigation payload subsystem design.

But time is running out if the Air Force wants to design and build GPS III satellites to replace those satellites on-orbit within six years. The Government Accountability Office reported this April that among if the first GPS III satellite is not launched by 2013 “constellation sustainment will be at risk.”

The Risk Reduction contract notice from the Space and Missile Systems Center indicates that it may be difficult to meet a 2013 launch date. It asked Boeing and Lockheed to provide it with life cycle cost estimates “consistent with a high confidence, low-risk capability insertion program plan for a FY 2014 launch availability” and additional cost estimates for an accelerated launch availability before FY 2014.

Anyone want to bet the first GPS III bird will be launched in 2013?