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GPS satellite
The GPS system may be far more robust than what some concluded after a recent GAO report. (credit: Boeing)

The GAO, the media, and GPS

If one were to go by last week’s headlines the GPS system will collapse sometime next year. Thanks to a poorly phrased Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, and the ability of the national media to makes mountains out of molehills, we are in for a long, noisy unenlightening debate.

What is almost certain is that the GPS constellation is going to remain operational and will provide positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services to all the users. The only question is, with how much precision and availability?

The relationship between the GAO and the mainstream media has never been adequately studied. In the 1980s a series of mildly negative GAO reports about the hardware involved in the Reagan military build-up were transformed by the media into an apocalyptic narrative that led much of the public to expect that high-tech US forces would collapse the first time they were faced with an enemy armed with “simple, robust” weapons. People who relied on the nation’s principal newspapers, magazines, and TV news shows for their knowledge of US military capabilities were shocked when, in 1991, the US thoroughly and completely defeated a “battle hardened” Iraqi army equipped with exactly the kinds of weapons the military reformers who had strongly influenced both the GAO and the media of that era advocated.

Like today’s GPS, the weapons being procured in the 1980s had some flaws, but they were fairly minor. They were the normal ones faced by any complicated piece of technology in the early stages of development and deployment. That today’s GPS program is behind schedule and faces a number of challenges should surprise no one. No one should expect any government project to be immune from what Heinlein called Cheops’s Law (after the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid of Giza), which states “Nothing ever gets built on time or within budget.” This is no reason not to complain, but it does put things in perspective.

Congressman John Tierney (D-MA), who chaired the hearing where the report was discussed, ordered the Air Force representative, General Neil McCasland to avoid any “happy talk”. As a Massachusetts politician he knows all about cost overruns, construction delays, shoddy workmanship, and other problems thanks to Boston’s “Big Dig”. Compared to that fiasco, nothing that Air Force Space Command has done or not done in recent decades, not even the Space Based Infrared Satellites (SBIRS), comes close.

The expected three-year delay in the GPS IIF satellite program is fairly typical of the procurement problems faced by most Defense Department programs. In her statement to Congress, Christina Chaplain of the GAO, who led the GPS study, said that “In fact DoD continues to face cost-overruns in the billions of dollars, schedule delays adding up to years, and performance shortfalls stemming from programs that began in the 1990s and after that were poorly structured, managed and overseen.” She neglected to mention that in 1993 the civilian procurement expert cadre that had been painfully built up in the 1980s, in part as a response to the GAO and media critiques, was wiped out when the Secretary of Defense at the time, Les Aspin, fired most of them.

In any case General McCasland said that he is confident that the first GPS IIF will launch in the first half of fiscal year 2010, which gives the Air Force a pretty big window. This program has, like so many others, been restructured and given a new layer of management. This may do some good and insure that the quality control needed for success is there, but nothing is guaranteed. What is almost certain, however, is that the GPS constellation is going to remain operational and will provide positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services to all the users. The only question is, with how much precision and availability?

What the GAO found was that “some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected.” That’s hardly the “collapse” that some media outlets described. In fact, the core of the report indicates that there is an 80% chance that the system will not have the full complement of 24 operational satellites at some point between 2010 and 2014. Yet as long as Air Force Space Command maintains more than 30 operational satellites—and even has four non-operational on-orbit spares—the possibility of a real system degradation, excluding the unlikely scenario where the system is attacked, is pretty low.

The GAO concentrates on the procurement problems—that is, after all, its main function—but it does not take into account the remarkable record that the GPS system operators have earned over the years. When needed they have been able to tweak the system to radically improve overall performance. The men and women who run the constellation have the skills and the experience to keep the system running, even if a few of the satellites fail on orbit or if the replacement units are again delayed.

If the GAO wanted to be truly visionary they would have recommended that the Administration and Congress establish a United States Space Force with its own chain of command and its own budget.

The biggest problem is not with the GPS system itself but with the way the Air Force has treated its space responsibilities, and here the GAO recommendation tends to be both too timid and too radical at the same time. “We recommend that the Secretary of Defense appoint a single authority to oversee the development of the GPS system, including space, ground control and user equipment assets, to ensure that the program is well executed and resourced and that potential disruptions are minimized.” This is the usual Washington solution: name a czar, no doubt with a full staff of “under-czarlings”.

If the GAO wanted to be truly visionary they would have recommended that the Administration and Congress establish a United States Space Force with its own chain of command and its own budget. To expect the Air Force, as it is currently organized, to be enthusiastic about its space responsibilities is to accept the impossible. The US Navy is never very happy when it has to divert its ships from their maritime role, especially when it involves taking their aircraft off of Nimitz-class carriers and replacing them with US Army helicopters. Why should the top leaders in the Defense Department expect the Air Force to act differently? Are Air Force generals any less subject to human nature than Navy admirals?

Keeping GPS the most reliable, accurate, and comprehensive PNT system in the world is a vital national interest. The Air Force has, with a few exceptions, done an adequate, but hardly stellar job. The media hysteria over the GAO report was to be expected, and the harm done to the USAF’s reputation is largely, but not wholly, undeserved. The mainstream media, though, has earned more black marks against itself for exaggeration, bias, ignorance, and credulity. The Air Force (or in the future the Space Force) will fix what needs to be fixed and will carry on.


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