Air Force leaders said they are closer to formally accepting a new GPS III satellite and a new ground system program into day-to-day operations after an upgrade allowed the control system to connect to the space vehicle on orbit.

The successful test, held Oct. 21, used the contingency operations upgrade to the GPS ground system and was part of an Air Force experiment to determine whether it can accept the GPS III satellite in December. The service subsequently plans to accept the ground system for contingency operations in April 2020.

The GPS III satellites will eventually replace the legacy satellites with a positioning, navigation and timing signal that is three times more accurate and eight times stronger than the current system. They will also provide M-code, a unique, highly secure PNT signal for military use.

But the next generation satellites need a next generation ground system to control them and to take full advantage of some of the more advanced features like M-code. However, that ground system is years behind schedule. According to the Government Accountability Office, Raytheon’s GPS Operational Control System (OCX), a $6.2 billion program, is already five years behind schedule. The GAO warned in a report that more delays are likely, though Raytheon has vigorously opposed those claims.

Meanwhile, the first GPS III satellite was launched Dec. 23, 2018 and the Air Force needs a ground system capable of interacting with both the new GPS III satellites and the legacy systems in the here and now. The Air Force contracted with Lockheed Martin to develop temporary upgrades to the legacy GPS ground system that will allow it to operationally command and control all of the GPS satellites in orbit until OCX is ready.

That interim solution, known as GPS III Contingency Operations, was delivered by Lockheed Martin back in May, and the Air Force claimed the program has achieved several successes since then. In May the program completed software testing and verification, followed by final system test completion in June. The contingency operations system was then approved for installation at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado and at Vandenberg, Air Force Base near Lompoc, California.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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