The U.S. Air Force just hit an important milestone in their new GPS satellite program, launching the first of an entirely new (and hardened) constellation of satellites that will provide greater resistance to foreign attacks and greater accuracy in the data transmitted to users. In total, 32 of these new satellites (at a cost of around $577 million apiece) will be launched into orbit above our heads. There’s just one problem: the ground control system needed to operate the next generation of GPS satellites is currently years behind schedule… meaning these fancy new satellites offer little in the way of improved performance.
According to Raytheon, who has been working hand-in-hand with the federal government to establish the new ground control system they’ve dubbed “OCX,” the system is now expected to be operational by 2021, to the tune of an additional $2.5 billion over the initial allocation of $3.7 billion.
With the satellites themselves behind schedule (but closer than the ground control system), there will still likely be as many as three next-generation GPS satellites adorning earth’s skies before the system that controls them is [now] expected to come online — with any further delays or issues certain to exacerbate timetables even further.
Once fully operational, the new GPS constellation will offer significantly improved accuracy over its predecessor system. Existing GPS technology has an accuracy range of approximately 10 to 33 feet on civilian receivers like those relied upon by many for navigation programs. The new system will offer accuracy to within just 3 to 10 feet, with even greater accuracy likely from military receivers.
An arguably far more important improvement offered by the new constellation, however, will be a more powerful signal that will be harder to jam. The U.S. military has operated under the assumption that any conflict between the U.S. and a near-peer opponent will involve efforts to compromise navigation and communications permitted by satellite up-link. As a result, new training aimed at operating in GPS and communications restricted areas have been adopted, with technological efforts like the new GPS program aimed at preventing such a concern from ever actually manifesting in combat.
Until the OCX system is up and running, the Air Force has incorporated workarounds that will allow the new GPS satellites to bolster the existing constellation for military receivers — though it’s unlikely the civilian side of navigation will see any benefit from the upgrade until the ground control system set to manage it is up and running.