The Space Force plans to launch the fifth GPS III satellite Thursday, which will allow the constellation to broadcast the encrypted M-Code positioning, timing and navigation signal to military users anywhere on the globe. The planned launch was actually moved forward from its original July schedule.

GPS III Space Vehicle-5 (SV-5), built by Lockheed Martin, will bring the number of satellites in the GPS constellation equipped with M-Code to 24 — the ‘magic number’ for allowing global access to the jam-resistant signal. Those 24 satellites include the five latest-model GPS III birds, as well GPS IIR-M and GPS IIF satellites. There are 31 GPS sats in total; GPS III SV-5 will replace one of the early models.

The code will begin broadcasting once the satellite is operational, which should be “two weeks after launch,” Col. Edward Byrne, senior materiel leader, Medium Earth Orbit Space Systems Division at Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), said today in a briefing with reporters.

The GPS III constellation is planned to include 10 satellites, before moving on to an updated version called GPS IIIF. While Space Force doesn’t like to provide exact costs for each satellite, Walter Lauderdale, Falcon Division chief and deputy mission director at SMC’s Launch Enterprise, said that earlier GPS III satellites had a price tag of some $500 million; the last two are expected to cost only about $200 million. (This is also the first time Space Force will take advantage of a previously used SpaceX booster, which has contributed to lower costs.)

Of course, there is still the not-so-tiny problem of getting troubled OCX, the command and control system, up and running so the Global Position System can fully utilize the M-Code. That won’t happen until 2023 at the earliest, Byrne said.

“Digital capabilities will roll in over the next year to take advantage of the GPS III capabilities,” he said. That will allow us to declare IOC [initial operational capability] for the constellation,” he said. “OCX and the user equipment piece do not come online until the third quarter of 2023; that is when we would expect to have our initial operational capability for the GPS enterprise across across all segments: space, ground and user equipment.” The plan, he added, is to “hit that milestone in the third quarter” of fiscal year 2023.

Prime contractor Raytheon’s Intelligence & Space unit will deliver Block 1 of the long-delayed OCX (short for Next Generation Operational Control Segment) for use by the Space Force in 2022, program manager Jeff McCall has told us. In addition, he said 13 of the 17 GPS monitor stations are deployed worldwide, and the system’s high-fidelity GPS system simulator was recently accredited.

OCX has had a troubled history, to say the least — including a serious Nunn-McCurdy breach back in 2016 that drew the wrath of the likely Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, when he was DoD acquisition czar. Kendall was cleared by the Senate Armed Service Committee last week.

How bad have OCX’s problems been? The most recent data from the Government Accountability Office says it is now 73 percent over its original budget, Jon Ludwigson, the congressional watchdog agency’s director of contracting and national security acquisitions, told a hearing of the House Armed Service’s strategic forces subcommittee last month.

Currently, all GPS satellites use the government’s current GPS control system, called OCS for Operational Control System. Until OCX comes in, Lockheed Martin has been contracted to sustain the OCS through 2025, as well as provide a series of stop-gap software upgrades. Those upgrades now allow the OCS to operate the more powerful GPS IIIs (and the rest of the constellation), as well as to task, upload and monitor the encrypted M-Code signals. But that doesn’t full enable the M-Code’s use.

Meanwhile, DoD soldiers on with its much-delayed efforts to enable the plethora of different types of GPS receivers embedded in the radio systems used by US (and allied) soldiers, sailors and airmen to actually pick up the M-Code and use it.

The delay in OCX and delivery of GPS user terminals “means that jam-resistant signal capabilities of GPS satellites launched over 15 years ago still cannot be fully used for military operations,” Ludwigson told lawmakers.

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