WASHINGTON – The Pentagon's top weapons tester is warning of significant risk to the Air Force's contingency plans for ensuring continued access to legacy GPS signals while the service works out the kinks in its next-generation GPS ground control segment, OCX.

The Pentagon is scrambling to get a handle on the troubled OCX program after announcing in December that it would delay initial operations of the Raytheon-built ground system until July 2021. The delay creates a capability gap starting in 2019, when the Air Force needs to begin replacing its aging GPS Block II satellites with modernized GPS IIIs, because the current ground control system cannot accommodate the new technology.

The Air Force is developing a contingency plan to bridge the gap between between the legacy GPS Operational Control Segment and OCX. But Pentagon weapon tester Michael Gilmore is concerned leadership is more focused on saving OCX than on ensuring a solid backup plan.

"Due to satellite control segment acquisition delays and insufficient focus on gap-filling capabilities, our ability to continuously provide worldwide GPS signal access may be in greater jeopardy in the near future than at any time since GPS achieved initial operational capability in 1993," Gilmore wrote in a Jan. 8 memo to Defense Secretary Ash Carter obtained by Defense News.

Read the memo here

The Defense Department will consider "at least a partial cancellation" of OCX if Raytheon can't deliver on its promises over the next few months, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall recently told reporters. Kendall will conduct a deep-dive review of the program in early March, which is expected to result in a new service cost position.

In the meantime, the Air Force has begun work on a GPS III Contingency Operations (COps) plan. The service on Feb. 4 awarded Lockheed Martin a $96 million contract modification to modify the existing ground system to be able to operate the new GPS III technology as a temporary stopgap measure before OCX comes online.

However, Gilmore warned in the Jan. 8 memo that COps may be at risk. The program's proposed acquisition schedule is "grossly optimistic and unrealistic," and the program office's own internal assessment is that COps acquisition "is high risk in comparison to other DOD programs," Gilmore wrote.

Gilmore also pointed out that the Air Force's track record of delivering satellite control segments on schedule is "abysmal."

Speaking with Defense News Thursday, March 3, Gilmore said he has urged Carter to prioritize COps over OCX because it is unlikely the Pentagon will be able to fix the troubled program in the planned two-year time frame. The Air Force and Raytheon have estimated OCX will require an additional four years to complete, twice as much time as the two-year extension Kendall approved in December. 

"The COps, the backup needs to be given high priority and we shouldn't short COps in an attempt to get OCX to work in two years — that is almost certain not going to work out," Gilmore said. "So what I have recommended to the secretary is that COps be given funding priority and resource priority because we're going to need it."

In the memo, Gilmore also expressed concern that Pentagon leadership is more focused on saving OCX than on the "now-critical" COps. He urged Carter to direct the Air Force to prioritize ensuring successful COps execution.

Gilmore wrote. "This requires our urgent attention, and I have placed COps under oversight for operational test and evaluation."

The Air Force declined to comment for this article by press time.

Twitter: @laraseligman