Air Force Looks to Ditch Lockheed After GPS Satellite Delays

An artist drawing provided by Lockheed Martin shows a Block III GPS satellite orbiting the Earth.

An artist drawing provided by Lockheed Martin shows a Block III GPS satellite orbiting the Earth. Lockheed Martin/AP File Photo

The service seeks other vendors to build 22 of 30 satellites.

Faced with delays in delivery of next-generation GPS III satellites by Lockheed Martin, the Air Force has asked other vendors for proposals – due Friday – to develop and build up to 22 satellites.

The GPS III satellites will provide new and more secure signals for military users and new signals for civil use, which promise enhanced accuracy for the location-based applications on smartphones and tablets.

Lockheed currently has a contract for eight GPS III satellites. Company spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said the delays were caused by problems with the navigation payload. The Government Accountability Office estimated in March that delays had pushed launch of the first GPS III satellite back by 21 months and increased costs by $300 million from $4.1 billion to $4.4 billion for the eight Lockheed satellites.

The Air Force buys GPS satellites in generational blocks, each block representing an improvement over the previous, with the first generation providing only one military and civil signal.

Lt. Col. Brian Bailey, deputy chief engineer of the Air Force GPS directorate, told a GPS meeting June 3 the service now has 30 satellites on orbit, including five Boeing-built GPS IIF satellites that offer three signals to civil users. He said the GPS III satellites will offer four civil signals when on orbit and will have a design life of 15 years, compared to 12 years for the IIF birds.

GPS chipsets have become near ubiquitous in mobile phone and computers. Bailey estimated there are now 2 billion civil users.

The Air Force said it plans to let two contracts next year for development of new GPS III satellites, potentially leading to an award of production contracts for 22 satellites in the 2017-2018 period, with the first satellite ready for launch in the first quarter of 2023.

Paula Shawa, a Boeing spokeswoman, said the company is interested in the new GPS III contract. “Boeing continues to believe there are affordable low-risk alternate GPS solutions and looks forward to supporting the Air Force in the sources-sought process to best meet the future warfighter needs,” Shawa said in an email statement.

This story has been updated with Boeing comment.