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Contractor Behind on USAF Satellite Navigation

Feb. 9, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
USAF Space Command Update
Gen. William Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command addresses Air Force Association Members during the Pacific Air and Space Symposium in Nov. 2013. Shelton raised concerns over the timetable of the GPS 3 system. (Staff Sgt. Carlin Leslie)
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WASHINGTON — The Air Force expects the contractors to miss its deadline for a critical part of the GPS 3 satellite, but remains confident it will not delay the overall constellation.

At issue is the navigation payload, provided by Exelis for the Lockheed Martin developed satellite.

“We are working through those problems,” Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said at a Feb. 7 breakfast event hosted by the Air Force Association. “We don’t believe right now, with what we know right now, that there will be an overall impact to the constellation from that later delivery.”

While “not happy” about the payload delivery slipping, Shelton noted the service always intended to launch the satellite later than the delivery date anyway, minimizing the potential damage to the schedule.

“We know that we can’t meet the original — and it really wasn’t the launch date as much as it was the initial launch capability, those are two different things, when we would actually launch it versus when they are supposed to provide that vehicle for us — we know they cannot make that date now,” Shelton said.

“I think the date was at the end of FY14 and we’re going to slip well past that now. But we hadn’t intended to launch this thing until into ’15 anyway. So that’s why I say I think we’re going to be fine,” he explained. “We haven’t determined exactly what the slip is going to be. Maybe we can still make what was going to be our date, but in terms of their contracting date, that’s where we’re going to drive past.”

Asked whether it was time for the service to get more proactive with the contractors on the module, Shelton made it clear the companies had already been given direction.

“The contractor knows exactly how we stand on this. Both the prime and the sub know exactly where we stand on this. I don’t think there is any shortage of attention,” he said. “Is my patience wearing thin? Yes. Has it gotten to the place where I’m going to step off the cliff? No.”

In recent years, Pentagon officials have pushed for more industry competition over high-priced contracts. Shelton made it clear he would prefer to see another company enter the arena and provide a challenge for Exelis.

“In the industrial base right now there is exactly one provider of navigation payloads and that technology,” Shelton said. “So yes, we have reached out to others and encouraged development, we will continue to look for other sources. But we are not at the place yet where we have given up on this particular contractor.”

Reached for comment, an Exelis spokesman highlighted the company’s history of working on older GPS constellations and noted that the payload hardware is built and is currently undergoing tests.

“Last year, Exelis identified some development issues with the navigation payload for the first GPS 3 satellite that needed further work,” Jared Adams, Exelis spokesman, wrote in an email. “Significant testing with flight-like engineering units and the first GPS 3 satellite’s flight hardware indicates that the known technical issues have been resolved, and GPS 3 will meet all mission and quality requirements.”

“It’s important to note the new generation of GPS 3 satellites is not an merely an upgrade to the existing system of satellites, but represents an entire overhaul,” Adams added. “As with all development programs, there are developmental challenges in the beginning, but our performance shows that once we get through the first payload, we have been able to produce consecutive payloads in as little as two and a half months.”

“Last year, Lockheed Martin and its payload provider, Exelis, identified some development issues with the navigation payload for the first GPS III satellite that needed further work,” Lockheed spokesman Chip Eschenfelder wrote in a statement. “The problems were largely first-time development and integration issues, including required design changes to eliminate “signal crosstalk,” or interference between the signals on the satellite. Significant testing with flight-like engineering units and the first GPS III satellite’s flight hardware indicates that known technical issues are being resolved, and GPS III will meet all mission and quality requirements.”

“We recognize that GPS III is a very important program for the U.S. Air Force, so Lockheed Martin and Exelis are doing whatever it takes to get this first navigation payload right,” Eschenfelder wrote. “We are committed to the Air Force’s back-to-basics approach, which will ensure that all development risks are retired and that the payload is fully flightworthy before its final delivery.”

The GPS 3 constellation will upgrade the Global Positioning System used in everything from military hardware to cell phones. But Shelton warned the crowd that the defense department may have tied itself too closely to GPS in recent years.

“The biggest issue here is whether or not we are too dependent on GPS,” he said. “We have artillery shells now that are guided by GPS, for gosh sakes. We have all sorts of bombs that are guided by GPS, our platforms are guided by GPS, the timing of our networks are driven by GPS timing. Do we have too much dependence on GPS? That’s the question we’re starting to ask across the department of defense.”

At the same time, he said the answer is to find supplements for GPS, not a wholesale replacement.

“The answer is not get off GPS,” Shelton said. “That will never be the answer in my view. We have some great work going on in DARPA to produce chip scale inertial measurement units, chip scale atomic clocks, but those aren’t near term. Those are probably mid to far term. So for the near term we need to think of how to work through things like GPS jamming.” ■


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