The GPS Satellite Praised by Mike Pence for Space Force Is Delayed Yet Again

(Bloomberg) -- Announcing plans for a new U.S. Space Force on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence singled out the Pentagon’s “new generation of jam-resistant GPS and communication satellites” as a harbinger of the push to “secure American leadership in space.”

But the advanced Global Positioning System satellite has been hobbled by four years of delivery delays. And now the launch the first of the new satellites -- originally planned for April 2014 -- has slipped once again, according to the Air Force.

The service said earlier this year that it delayed the launch of the first GPS III satellite, part of a $5.4 billion program, to October at the earliest, from May. The service said it needed to complete final reviews of the upgraded rocket that Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to use to boost it into orbit.

That schedule’s slipped again, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said in a statement to Bloomberg News. The launch date “has been officially moved by mutual agreement” to December “to complete qualification testing and” one-time validation of SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 Block 5 design, the command said.

The GPS III satellites being built by Lockheed Martin Corp. reflect the Defense Department’s effort to upgrade U.S. capabilities in space. Increasingly that includes the ability to defend against potential attacks on key assets, as competitors including Russia and China expand their offensive capabilities.

The Space Force would be a sixth branch of the military, a move demanded by President Donald Trump that still must be approved and funded by Congress. The Air Force, which now oversees space programs, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had argued in the past against adding to the Pentagon’s sprawling bureaucracy.

The new GPS satellites promise increased accuracy for navigation, a signal compatible with similar European satellites and improved security against cyberattacks. GPS navigation is widely used by the military as well as for civilian purposes such as street-by-street driving directions on mobile phones.

Ground Stations

While the satellite program’s cost has increased by about $600 million due to technical problems, primarily with the navigational payload, it appears to have stabilized.

That’s separate from a delay of at least five years in putting into operation the worldwide network of ground stations built by Raytheon Co. that’s needed to operate the GPS III constellation at its full potential.

“GPS is an essential national security asset and a key component of our nation’s infrastructure and economy, but GPS programs have also been plagued by acquisition problems, delays, and cost growth,” said Cristina Chaplain, space systems director for the Government Accountability Office, said in an email.

The ground-control system, known as OCX, “has been so troubled, DOD has had to start two additional programs to modify the current ground system to control the newest generation of satellites,” Chaplain said.

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