GPS: Dedicated to Excellence

Col. Steve Whitney, Space and Missile Systems Center director of the Global Positioning System Directorate (SMC/GP), Los Angeles Air Force Base, El Segundo, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Col. Steve Whitney, Space and Missile Systems Center director of the Global Positioning System Directorate (SMC/GP), Los Angeles Air Force Base, El Segundo, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo)

SMC Mission of the Month’ banner, featuring the Global Positioning System Directorate (SMC/GP)

SMC Mission of the Month’ banner, featuring the Global Positioning System Directorate (SMC/GP)

Global Positioning Systems Directorate

Global Positioning Systems Directorate

The Global Positioning Systems Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif. marks the 20th anniversary of Full Operational Capability of GPS with a commemorative emblem. (Air Force graphic/William Chavez)

The Global Positioning Systems Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif. marks the 20th anniversary of Full Operational Capability of GPS with a commemorative emblem. (Air Force graphic/William Chavez)

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE - EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- 2015 was an exciting year to assume leadership of the Global Positioning Systems Directorate. I've witnessed the men and women of our team accomplish some amazing things, across all of our efforts to modernize the constellation and would like to take a moment to share our progress over the past year and set the vision for 2016 as we remain dedicated to excellence.

The past year has been another outstanding one in terms of delivering capability on-orbit.  We've continued the pace from last year, placing another three new satellites into space. We've started the new year out right, launching our final Boeing-built GPS IIF satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, Feb. 5. This launch marks the 19th satellite to broadcast the Military Code (M-Code) and second civil signals (L2C) as well as the 12th satellite to broadcast the third civil signal, L5. Each time the dedicated professionals from government and industry, representing many, many organizations have come together to show the world the gold standard.

In the development of our next generation of satellites, the GPS team continues to make progress. In September, we completed flight qualification of the navigation payload and its software -- many of you recall that this area has been a challenge for us over the years and I wanted to share this success. Additionally, the first GPS III satellite recently completed thermal vacuum testing at prime contractor Lockheed Martin's facility in Littleton, Colorado.

Thermal vacuum testing, or TVAC, is one of the last major events in the assembly and integration flow of the satellite and will prove out the hard work of the team. This first GPS III satellite is scheduled to be available for launch by August 2016. Lastly, we aren't losing focus on the rest of the development units as the second GPS III space vehicle is over 95 percent delivered and integrated at the GPS III processing facility.

Over in the development of the ground segment, it's no secret we've had very significant cost and schedule challenges in the development of the GPS next generation system, OCX. Right now, we are engaging with both our industry partner, Raytheon, and the Department of Defense leadership to plot a way forward to deliver these much needed capabilities. This effort is intended to improve both Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) capabilities and cyber security posture in increasingly contested, congested, and competitive space and cyber domains.

The third area of our modernization efforts is our work on user equipment. Our military user equipment division continued to make acquisition history by pursuing a commercially driven strategy with all three contractors; L-3 Interstate Electronics Corporation, Rockwell Collins, and Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems. They started the year by taking prototype cards to field exercises such as RED FLAG and are currently in full developmental testing of the functioning receiver cards. 2015 was an exciting year, and I'm proud to say 2016 will be no different.

With 2016 well underway, I'd like to reemphasize a challenge my predecessor Brig. Gen. Bill Cooley laid out in his 2015 Directions article, "What It Takes to Make a Gold Standard." A challenge that GPS manufacturers worldwide innovate and build products that utilize modernized civil signals and the improved PNT capabilities brought by the Civil Navigation message. With 19 satellites providing global coverage of L2C, it's now up to industry to take advantage of these capabilities and pave the way towards modernized civil navigation.

For the first time in history, civil users will have access to what has been available to military users since the inception of GPS, full use of dual signal frequency accuracy. This, combined with other advances, translates into increased PNT accuracy and resiliency for users worldwide. It's time for the civil community to develop receivers that take advantage of these capabilities and usher in an era of more robust civil navigation.

Last week's launch also marks the end of an era, presenting a finale to one of the most aggressive launch campaigns in recent history... seven GPS IIF satellites in over 21 months! This satellite is the last GPS satellite considered "second generation," a generation that began operations in 1989.

In total, Generation II GPS launches will have spanned over 28 years comprised of 61 space vehicles amongst five different blocks: II, IIA, IIR, IIR-M, and IIF. Over these years, characteristics such as User Range Error (URE) have continuously improved, hallmarking the success of the GPS developers and operators past and present. In fact, from 2001 to 2014, URE was nearly cut in half, going from an annual average of 1.6 meters to just 0.7 meters for the civil user. These improvements will continue as we launch the next-generation GPS III satellites.

In preparation for continued success into the future, the GPS Directorate begins acquisition of GPS III space vehicles 11+.  On July 3, 2015, the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics approved the acquisition strategy for the GPS III space vehicles 11+ Production Readiness Feasibility Assessment to verify if capable GPS III production designs exists beyond the current GPS III contractor. The results of the GPS III Production Readiness Feasibility Assessment will shape and inform a GPS III space vehicles 11+ Follow-on Production acquisition strategy in the FY17 timeframe.

The GPS Directorate will reaffirm our commitment to excellence and providing unparalleled service and capability. Challenges remain ahead, but the GPS Directorate is dedicated to delivering a ground system necessary for command and control of both today and tomorrow's GPS enterprise. This includes the GPS Directorate's pursuit of aggressive and innovative strategies to meet interim and future needs such as increasing the resiliency of the current ground system and investigating means for launching GPS III satellites as soon as possible so they are ready for operation at full capability with the completion of a modernized ground segment.

Just this past year, we successfully accomplished several "hardening" efforts of the current ground system adding to its robustness against the threats of today and tomorrow. Another endeavor we are working on is providing options to higher headquarters for the early use of M-Code.

The modernized GPS user equipment program (MGUE) will continue to pursue an innovative and aggressive acquisition strategy in 2016. Next year will kick-off integrating receiver cards into service nominated lead platforms which include the Defense Advanced GPS Receiver Distributed Device, or D3, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Arleigh Burke-class Destroyer's navigation system, and the B-2 Spirit.

These efforts culminate with operational testing and eventually allow services to procure receiver cards directly. Over the next twelve months, the GPS Directorate also plans to begin work on a modernized GPS handheld, ensuring Airmen, Marines, Soldiers, and Sailors have access to portable, accurate, and resilient position, navigation, and timing powered by M-Code. As MGUE is integrated into a myriad of DoD systems over the coming years, our users will continue to have the assured PNT needed to win today and tomorrow's fight.

Finally, you can count on the professionals of the GPS Directorate's team to continue to exhibit acquisition excellence. It's been six months since I assumed leadership of the GPS Directorate and I am amazed every day with the passion and accomplishments of our people -- which includes military, civilian, support contractors, federally funded research and development center partners, and our industry partners. I feel privileged to work with each and every one of them on daily basis and look forward to what 2016 has in store for us all.

A final thanks to you, the GPS user. With over 4 billion users and an ever growing-economic impact, you motivate us to continue to improve and assure this vital mission.

Editor's note: An earlier version of Col. Whitney's commentary appeared in the December 2015 issue of GPS World magazine.