New GPS Satellite’s Delivery Slips Again Over Untested Component

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Air Force’s first new GPS satellite, already 28 months late, missed its most recent delivery date last month and won’t be shipped until at least December because a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin Corp. failed to conduct testing on a key part years ago.

Testing of the part, a ceramic capacitor, should have been completed as long as five years ago, including evaluating how long it will operate without failing, said Colonel Steve Whitney, program manager for the Global Positioning Satellite program. About 600 of these capacitors are on the initial satellite, which cost approximately $529 million.

“We are going through that now,” Whitney said of the belated testing. He said in a phone interview that he was confident the part will be ready by December and “once it’s done, we’ll be good.”

The Global Positioning System developed by the U.S. military provides turn-by-turn directions on the smartphones of drivers and hikers as well as coordinates for bombs hitting Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq. The new GPS III satellites promise increased accuracy for navigation, a signal compatible with similar European satellites and improved security against cyberattacks.

Lockheed, the satellite’s prime contractor, already had experienced delays in receiving the navigation payloads for the second through seventh of the new satellites because of glitches with other capacitors.

For Bloomberg Intelligence’s primer on Lockheed, click here.

While the Air Force has a commitment for Lockheed to build the first 10 of the 32 new satellites planned, delays contributed to the service’s decision earlier this year to review which other companies might be capable of building the remaining 22. Whitney said the service will decide by February whether to buy the satellite competitively or stick with Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed.

“The satellite delivery had already been delayed for more than two years due in part to problems developing the navigation payload,” Cristina Chaplain, a director with the U.S. Government Accountability Office who follows military space programs, said in an e-mail. “This latest setback will add even more delays to this critical strategic military and civilian capability. But the full implications of the issue remain unknown. We are engaged with the program office to monitor their progress as they address the issue.”

The capacitor that’s now being tested “is a critical part in a series of circuit cards that take higher-voltage power” from the satellite’s power system and reduce it to a voltage required for a particular subsystem, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center said in an e-mail.

Lockheed spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said in an e-mail that “during our rigorous navigation payload testing, we discovered a capacitor type on the payload that had not been properly qualified per the program’s approved parts control plan. Upon discovering the issue, we took immediate corrective action with the payload provider to qualify the capacitor.”

Oversight Responsibility

Lockheed “is responsible for maintaining oversight of its subcontractors,” he said.

Ellen Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Harris Corp., which provides the part, said in an e-mail that “this capacitor is among more than 28,000 total parts used for the payload” and was supplied by a one of its own subcontractors. Harris “is fully committed to this program’s success” and is working closely with Lockheed and the Air Force “to remediate the situation," she said.

Whitney said “we asked Lockheed to go through the entire spacecraft design and verify that every single part and every single design element, every single qualification, was completed, and they are in the process of doing that.”

The failure to test the critical part was discovered in late April, when the Air Force decided to review the history of capacitors on the first GPS III satellite after a similar part failed during testing of the third satellite, Whitney said.

“It should have been done at the subcontractor level, but at the end of the day the Air Force is the one running the program,” Whitney said.

The GAO warned in 2010 the Air Force would find it difficult to deliver the GPS III system on time because “its satellite development schedule was optimistic given the program’s late start, past trends in space acquisitions, and challenges facing” the contractors, Chaplain said.

Separately, development costs for Raytheon Co.’s network of ground stations for the GPS III satellites are expected to increase more than 25 percent over current estimates, triggering a legal requirement to review whether the program should be canceled. Delivery of its full capability is at least five years late.

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