The Defense Department should conduct an independent schedule assessment of the Air Force’s ongoing upgrades to the GPS ground control system or risk the program running so far behind that it misses the final schedule threshold, a government watchdog report said May 21.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) called on DoD to direct the Office of Cape Assessment and Program Evolution (CAPE) to independently assess the full program schedule for the GPS’ next-generation operational control system (OCX) based on progress made through the end of calendar year 2019.

Raytheon operators at the helm of the GPS OCX Launch and Checkout System (LCS) workstations at Schriever AFB. (Photo: Raytheon)

The GAO notes in its Tuesday report titled “Global Position System: Updated Schedule Assessment Could Help Decision Makers Address Likely Delays Related to New Ground Control System,” that while OCX contractor Raytheon [RTN] has sped up the process of building and testing software for the new system, the program remains years behind schedule and the company has already used up the majority of its schedule reserve.

Multiple entities have conducted assessments of the program – to include the Air Force, Raytheon, CAPE, the Defense Contract Management Agency (DMCA) and the MITRE Corp. – but it has not undergone an independent analysis since December 2017, with MITRE’s report, the office said.

“While the program plans to continue assessing schedule progress, there are no plans in place for an independent schedule assessment,” the report said. “The program’s history has consistently shown program and contractor estimates to be optimistic and that independent assessments have provided useful insights about risks as well as past experience with similar activities.”

OCX aims to replace the current OCS system and modernize and sustain the current GPS capability as the Air Force deploys its new GPS III satellites, built by Lockheed Martin [LMT]. The program would also improve the system’s cybersecurity by enabling a stronger, more encrypted GPS signal called M-Code.

According to data compiled in the report, OCX development is currently projected to take about five years longer and cost at least $2.5 billion more than originally estimated. Work began in 2012, and has since undergone three schedule baseline adjustments. The most recent, from September 2018, has a goal for the Air Force to reach a decision to transition the capability to operations by April 2022, with the last-resort threshold date of April 2023.

Raytheon delivered OCX Block 0 in 2017, and that capability will interact with GPS III for launch and checkout operations. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is developing the Contingency Operations (COps) upgrade, which would allow the Air Force to use the current OCS equipment to operate the GPS III satellites until OCX comes online. Air Force and Lockheed Martin officials previously said COps would be delivered in May.

The GAO assessed that Raytheon’s expected completion date of June 2021 is optimistic. “All government and independent analyses project OCX delivery will exceed June 2021 by at least six months, but still deliver in time to support the April 2023 threshold (latest acceptable) date for the full program schedule. However, meeting the ready to transition to operations threshold date depends on acceptance of OCX by September 2022, at the latest,” the report said. Considering the program’s history of delays and mixed success on actual development progress, GAO said it is skeptical the program would meet the current projected deadline.

Even if the software development portion is complete on time, OCX must undergo seven months of developmental testing after the program is approved by the Air Force, but before it is ready to transition to the service. That timeline could also be optimistic as the service looks to perform competing activities at that point that could double the amount of time needed for testing, the report said.

The Defense Department did not concur with GAO’s recommendation, asserting that CAPE conducted an independent assessment of the program’s developmental milestone last September, and the department is moving forward based on that schedule analysis. The GAO report stated that a new independent review is necessary, as the full program schedule has not been assessed since last June, and additional program risks have emerged since then.

“We maintain that for complex programs, such as OCX, best practices state an independent view is necessary and that a periodic schedule assessment should be performed as progress is made and risks change,” the report said. “Given the mixed progress developing software, the number of new contractor risks discovered in 2018, the limited remaining schedule reserve held by the contractor (with at least two years of significant work remaining), and the potential for doubling the time frame for the planned 7-month post-acceptance government-run developmental testing period, we determined that the recommendation remains a prudent step.

“Such an assessment would help inform congressional and DoD decision makers as they consider what steps may be taken to address delays to the start of OCX operations and ensure the investments in needed new receivers are properly aligned,” it continued. The GAO conducted its performance audit from November 2017 to May 2019.