DOD Not Prioritizing Development of GPS Alternatives, GAO Says


Despite known vulnerabilities with GPS tech, the department treats developing other position, navigation and timing technologies as an “afterthought,” officials said. 

The Defense Department relies too heavily on the Global Positioning System for position, navigation and timing despite technological vulnerabilities, according to a recent watchdog report overviewing the agency’s efforts to develop alternative solutions. 

Because GPS is vulnerable to disruption from activities like jamming, physical attacks against satellites and, or data spoofing, DOD is developing a variety of alternative technologies. But according to a Government Accountability Office audit published May 10, these alternatives are not prioritized enough. 

While the military services are largely driving the push for PNT alternatives and certain provisions in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act may help push the effort ahead, experts and DOD officials told GAO alternatives to GPS are an “afterthought.” The department lacks a central program office for PNT, and some officials also suggested GPS holds the kind of “political clout” that can hamper efforts to develop other options. 

“Both experts and DOD officials said that the vulnerabilities of relying on GPS are well known, but DOD’s response may not be sufficient to address the threat,” the audit reads. 

Some of the problems with developing new solutions aren’t atypical for DOD. For example, GAO found issues with transitioning PNT solutions to programs of record, which is a widespread issue for innovation at DOD. Officials also told GAO they’ve experienced vendor lock-in problems and issues with integrating new PNT technologies because of the proprietary nature of some systems, the fact that customized integrations increase costs, and lack of sufficient funds for DOD’s integration regime.

There’s also a dearth of centrally defined requirements for PNT technologies, according to the audit, which is an issue because then new technologies must meet a “range of requirements.” And where requirements do exist, they often fall back on GPS standards. 

“According to the PNT Roadmap, program managers routinely demand performance levels that match those of GPS,” the audit reads. “However, in many cases, a mission may not need GPS-level performance. For example, a ship may be able to successfully navigate a route with location data less precise than those provided by GPS.”

GAO offered six policy options that may help address these problems: 

  • Increase collaboration by outlining clear responsibilities and authorities, thereby helping to realize a prioritization of alternative PNT tech.
  • Focus on resiliency rather than “assuming GPS remains the cornerstone of a PNT suite of technologies.”
  • Clarify requirements instead of defaulting to GPS standards. 
  • Improve coordination with industry. 
  • Make DOD’s open architecture initiative permanent in order to ease integration. 
  • And analyze vulnerabilities to alternative PNT technologies.

Even taking these recommendations into account, DOD will still have to work through considerations such as how the department will balance maintaining GPS, which is still needed, while developing alternatives, how to incentivize industry to develop alternative PNT tech, and how to keep up with evolving threats to these alternative solutions.