Billions of people around the globe utilize GPS as a part of their day to day lives, but few people realize that the satellite infrastructure that provides that method of tracking and navigation was put into orbit and is continuously maintained by the United States military.

With the exception of the Roscosmos GLONASS network launched by the Russians that sees little use outside of the Russian military, America’s constellation of only 31 “GPS 2” satellites provides the coverage necessary for the global use of the infrastructure. China is, however, currently developing plans to launch their own GPS constellation sometime in the future.

With both China and Russia developing new methods to deny access to the GPS network in target areas, the U.S. military has recently adopted a two-fold approach to the possibility of conflict with a peer or near-peer nation capable of using such network denial methodologies. Last month, the U.S. Air Force conducted large scale combat training operations without the use of the GPS network, approximating what warfare might be like without the system so much of the American military has come to rely on. This training strategy accounts for the first of the two approaches to managing a foreign nation’s ability to block America’s access to its GPS satellites.

The second approach, as outlined in a request for proposal released on Feb. 13, is to launch an entirely new constellation of advanced GPS satellites designed specifically to counter such attacks.

The Air Force, which is tasked with the American military’s orbital operations, has already placed an order for 10 satellites they had referred to as GPS 3 models, intended to replacing aging out GPS 2 platforms in the coming years. However, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced on Tuesday that the branch is pursuing a fresh start to the GPS 3 program, focusing now on hardened assets that are more difficult to jam.

“The GPS 3 that we are moving toward is more jam-resistant, and it is intended to be able to operate in a contested environment,” Wilson said.

It seems likely that the Air Force will still follow through with its original GPS 3 order, as the first of the next generation GPS satellites is already slated for launch in March aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, though they will not extend the purchase contract beyond what has already been agreed upon. Instead, the 22 all new GPS 3 satellites will take to the skies with the intention of helping to ensure American forces can maintain contact with them even when in combat against a technology advanced opponent like China.

A current GPS 3 satellite in development. (Lockheed Martin)

Wilson actually referenced China twice in her remarks, first pointing out that it’s, “public knowledge that they can jam satellites,” and also in reference to their 2007 test, in which a Chinese missile was used to destroy a satellite in low earth orbit.

“I cannot think of a military mission that doesn’t depend on space,” Wilson said. “Our potential adversaries know it, and we need to protect those vital assets.”

It is expected that Lockheed Martin will bid for the right to produce this new network of hardened GPS satellites, though contenders in the form of other contractors like Boeing and Northrop Grumman can be expected. With a total price tag of around $10 billion, the first of the new crop of GPS 3 satellites may take to the skies as soon as 2026.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force

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