A recent report released by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this week has underscored the critical importance of reassessing the US military’s global positioning system (GPS) modernization effort to meet its need for accuracy.

GPS, as we know it, is the backbone of navigation and timing information for both military and civilian applications. It plays a pivotal role in the operational effectiveness of armed forces, not just in the US but worldwide. From precise targeting and navigation in combat operations to logistics management and synchronization of military assets, GPS is undoubtedly an indispensable tool for modern warfare.

The Underutilization of GPS

The GAO’s investigation services for the US Congress revealed alarming findings, including the underutilization of the first US Air Force GPS satellite and disruptions caused by in-ground and user equipment segment delays. To address these challenges and ensure optimal operational capabilities, the agency recommends reassessing the requirements for satellites and handheld devices, aiming for a comprehensive modernization effort that aligns with the military’s evolving needs.

It noted that in order to counter such challenges, which usually affect the operation of the military’s jam-resistant signal broadcaster, the Department of Defense (DoD) has to consider adding three more satellites to the existing 24-satellite constellation. But this upgrade will come with a price, in terms of funding and maintenance, to ensure the consistent availability of all 27-satellite constellations over the next decade—a no-easy challenge for the US military.

For over twenty years, the DoD has been working diligently to upgrade the GPS, which first emerged in the early 1970s, with a military-specific signal called M-code that enhances jam resistance. It is crucial for the three segments, including ground control, space, and user equipment. However, concerns have arisen regarding the ability of the current 24-satellite constellation to meet the accuracy needs of some users.

GPS device
A handheld GPS device (Image source: DVIDS)

The current number of satellites in the GPS constellation dates back to its original launch in the late 1970s, reaching full operational capability in the early 1990s. Initially developed for exclusive military use, GPS technology emerged during the space race era. However, in the 1980s, civilians were granted access to this revolutionary technology following an executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. The decision to open GPS to civilian use came in the aftermath of a tragic commercial airline incident, highlighting the need for enhanced navigation and safety measures for both military and civilian applications.

M-Code Issues, Upgrade Delays

The GAO claimed that the US Space Force has yet to finalize a new schedule and admitted that additional delays are imminent due to other risks. Still, it may fall short of its performance goals considering the ongoing attempt to upgrade the GPS technology.

Delays in the ground control segment, according to the report findings of GAO, indicate that its delivery schedule has been pushed to at least later this year, emphasizing that the US Space Force’s imperative action to finalize the new timeline and address the risks that may lead to further delays. The space segment, as mentioned, needs to consider adding three satellites in orbit to meet specific user accuracy requirements. Meanwhile, the user equipment segment had tackled the development of the M-code capable Military GPS User Equipment (MGUE) Increment 1.