Military forces’ reliance on GPS navigation raises the stakes for identifying solutions should an adversary jam signals or harm the constellation. Timeliness and accuracy makes GPS a crucial tool for joint terminal attack controllers and others—on the ground, in the air, and at sea. Airman 1st Class James Miller
Photo Caption & Credits

World: Space

Sept. 2, 2022

GAO Criticizes DOD on GPS Alternatives

By Amanda Miller

The Defense Department’s growing reliance on the GPS constellation’s navigation and timing signals is increasingly at risk of interference, both by jamming and potential kinetic attack, the Government Accountability Office reports, saying DOD has not done enough to invest in alternatives. 

GAO said the Air Force’s business case for its Resilient-Embedded Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation System (R-EGI) are complete, but that the Navy must still finish business cases for its proposed GPS alternatives so Congress can properly oversee and fund the programs. 

The GAO report criticized the Pentagon’s Precision Navigation and Timing Oversight Council for focusing on modernizing existing GPS constellation at the expense of alternatives.DOD’s intent in using this approach is that these alternative sources would work together, even when GPS is available, to check the accuracy of each source, including GPS, and combine information if the quality of a single source degrades.”

The most common mode of interfering with GPS is jamming—blocking communication between transmitters and receivers by sending out signals in the same band of radio frequencies, according to the report. Yet while jamming is limited in geographic range, cyberattacks “can have far greater reach as long as the target is accessible via a computer network, and can present a greater threat” the report said, characterizing “automation and connectivity” as “fundamental enablers of DOD’s modern military capabilities” that also “make weapon systems more vulnerable.”

USAF’s REG-I, a “multi-PNT” receiver for air platforms, includes GPS service plus inertial navigation, with an open architecture to accommodate future alternative PNT mechanisms. 

The Navy’s receiver, the Upgrade to Global Positioning System based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Service (GPNTS), adds clocks plus inputs for commercial satellite data. The Navy is also acquiring celestial and inertial navigation systems and an upgrade to its Cooperative Engagement Capability sensor network for situational awareness. The business cases aren’t complete for any of the Navy’s programs.

The Army’s Dismounted Assured Position Navigation and Timing System (DAPS) for troops on foot and its Mounted Assured Position, Navigation, and Timing System (MAPS) for combat vehicles involve inertial systems along with clocks plus receivers for commercial satellite data. DAPS and MAPS have yet to transition from the “urgent” to the “middle tier” or “major capability” acquisition “pathways” like the Air Force’s and Navy’s.

The report acknowledges that depending on urgency and other factors, the services don’t have to turn in completed business cases but said that doing so is a “leading practice” that can help the DOD “improve its acquisition outcomes.”

“The information in a complete business case can help decision-makers in DOD and Congress oversee acquisition efforts. With a complete business case, decision-makers can better ensure that the necessary resources are available to match the program’s requirements, and that technologies used in a system will work as expected. Without a complete business case, as is the case with the four Navy efforts, DOD assumes more risk, which may result in reduced capabilities of the eventual system, delayed delivery of PNT capabilities to the warfighter, or unexpected cost increases,” according to the report.

The GAO report also pointed out that the DOD’s three-tiered PNT Oversight Council “only rarely addressed alternative PNT efforts” and instead “focused its efforts on addressing GPS issues,” which DOD officials said was “due to the pressing need to purchase computer chips to support M-code receiver cards,” referring to the department’s new stronger, encrypted signal.

USAFE, AFSOC Buy SpaceX Internet Service

AFSOC is using Starlink to gain services in Europe and Africa. A 352nd Special Operations Wing CV-22B Osprey transited U.K. skies in August, en route to night-time refueling operations. Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire/ANG

By Greg Hadley

Apair of Air Force units across two major commands have announced plans to purchase services from SpaceX’s Starlink constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). The contracts come not long after service leaders praised the effectiveness of the satellite internet service in aiding Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.

U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa contracted SpaceX to use Starlink’s services from August 2022 to July 2023, principally for the 86th Airlift Wing, which is the host unit at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and its tenant units.

The agreement states that SpaceX will “provide either First-Generation or High-Performance satellite terminals and internet service either static/fixed site or portable/mobile to the terminals enabling users to connect devices to the internet,” according to contract documents published Aug. 4. That internet service will provide low-latency connectivity and download speeds of up to 500 megabits per second.

The sole-source contract is worth a little more than $1.9 million and was not contested because “Starlink is the only LEO constellation communications company that currently provides this commercial satellite solution with services to Europe and Africa,” the documents state.

That same rationale was cited by the 1st Special Operations Contracting Squadron of Air Force Special Operations Command in its contract with SpaceX published Aug. 5.

That contract will also cover a 12-month period, with SpaceX providing five Starlink terminals as well as access to Starlink’s internet services, for “operational evaluation.” 

The exact unit that will receive the terminals was redacted from the contract documents, but the 1st SOCONS provides contract support for the 1st Special Operations Wing, one of five wings under AFSOC. The 1st SOW operates everything from CV-22 Ospreys to AC-130J gunships to U-28A Dracos.

The estimated cost of the contract was also redacted.

USAFE-AFAFRICA’s and AFSOC’s moves to purchase commercial satellite internet access come as lawmakers and analysts alike have called for the Department of Defense to rely more on commercial space capabilities for things such as communications and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped to highlight some of the areas where commercial capabilities could be useful. Satellite imagery before and during the conflict have shown Russian troop movements and buildups, and SpaceX has made Starlink available for Ukrainians, allowing the country’s government and civilians to more easily communicate despite the chaotic situation on the ground. Founder Elon Musk has even said the constellation has proven resilient against Russian cyberattacks.

“I would … say that commercial space has been very important in providing capabilities that have been helpful to Ukraine,” Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond said at the Aspen Security Forum in July.

The impact of Ukraine was even mentioned in USAFE’s Starlink contract documents.

“With Ukraine’s operations emergent communication requirement, the communication requirements within and around eastern European areas in support of Ukraine operations expands daily,” the document states. … “Starlink LEO fulfills the requirement of reducing processing times and increases theater based operations on changing requirements and locations.”

At the same time, DOD, led by the Space Force, is still pursuing sizable low-Earth orbit constellations of its own. In particular, the Space Development Agency is planning to launch hundreds of satellites as part of Tranches 0 and 1 of its Transport Layer, though those satellites won’t launch until 2023, rolling out over time into 2024.                                                                                                  

NRO Director: Agency Will Accept Instructions From Space Command

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying National Reconnaissance Office mission NROL-87, launches from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex-4, Feb. 2, 2022. Michael Peterson/USSF

By Amanda Miller

The leader of the National Reconnaissance Office said the NRO will follow instructions from U.S. Space Command if needed. Meanwhile, the NRO awaits a finding by the Space Force on whether the office’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities “need to expand.”

In a webinar hosted by AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies on Aug. 4, NRO director Christopher Scolese described how the office is formalizing its roles and relationships among the defense space and intelligence agencies. 

Addressing the needs of both the Defense Department and Intelligence Community, the NRO gets its instructions—“what to look at and listen to”—from the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Scolese explained. 

“They collect all the requirements from the combatant commands, from the broader DOD, and from the Intelligence Community,” Scolese said. The two agencies “then let us know where the priorities are, and then we go off and manage the constellation.”

The NRO has had “a long-standing relationship” with U.S. Space Command and its predecessors, according to Scolese. Now the two entities are hammering out “the framework for how we’re going to operate under various conditions.

“Because it will be necessary for us to coordinate and, in some cases, take direction. And we have agreed to do that. We’re in the process of developing the strategies on how that happens, and when it happens, and under what situations it happens,” he continued. “For the most part, it’s a coordination effort, but it sometimes will be, ‘Hey, you need to do this.’ And we will do that.” 

Like the Space Force, Scolese said the NRO is adding to its satellite constellations to make them more resilient against attacks—and that doing so is also making the system “more responsive” because with more satellites, the office can revisit sites for observation more frequently. 

Smaller satellites built on common buses are also adding to the constellations’ resilience because they’re fast to replace and can be launched from more sites. NRO launches have now taken off from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand hub and NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in addition to the typical Eastern Range and Western Range launch sites in Florida and California; and an air-launched flight from the U.K. is coming up later this year.

“Having the capability to launch pretty much from almost anywhere in the world gives us great flexibility,” Scolese said. “Should we lose a capability either due to a mission failure or … if we should lose them due to some adversary action that would take them out, we now have more places to go off and launch from and, therefore, reconstitute the constellation.”

Scolese said he didn’t foresee big changes to the NRO’s role based on a study of its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities. He didn’t see a need for the Space Force to contract separately for commercial ISR products because it makes the information it acquires readily available.

“So the mechanism is there already for organizations to take advantage of,” Scolese expressed. Meanwhile the Space Force is “studying ISR in general. They will find out if we need to expand that, or if it’s fine as is, and then we’ll adjust, or adjust as a community.”