GPS system questions

The Government Accountability Office’s report last week on the parlous state of the Global Positioning Satellite system should set alarm bells ringing. When a body like the GAO warns that the GPS system is in crisis, all of us – not just sailors – need to take notice. GPS technology is so omnipresent in modern life that few areas of transportation remain unaffected by it.

The GAO report cites delays in Air Force efforts to replace the ageing satellites currently in orbit. “It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption. If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected,” warns the GAO.

The reasons? Delays in funding, frequent turnover of managers, problems with contractors, the lack of a single leadership authority; in other words, a lethargic and inefficient bureaucracy.

If the Air Force doesn’t meet its goals, says the GAO, there is an “increased likelihood” that in 2010 failing satellites will affect the “level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to.” What follows would be “wide ranging impacts on all GPS users.”

As if that’s not enough, the GAO says the Air Force is lagging so badly in its program to update landbased GPS support systems that even if it does manage to get enough new-generation satellites into orbit by next year, the ability of the military to take full advantage of the system has been compromised.

What this means is that the military will get first dibs on the system, and the GAO warns that there are “challenges in the areas of ensuring civilian requirements can be met.” Meanwhile, Europe and Russia forge ahead with their own well-funded, up-to-date versions of satellite navigation technology that will eventually eliminate their dependency on the Department of Defense-funded GPS system.

All of this makes the government’s decision to drop the Coast Guard-maintained Loran-C system even more questionable. Back in February, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced that the President’s budget would cut funding for the “outdated” terrestrial navigation system by the end of 2009, thereby saving $190 million over five years.

This leaves mariners and pilots – not to mention the myriad other users who’ve come to rely on GPS – without a backup navigation system at a time when the GPS constellation is in danger of breaking down, with potentially catastrophic consequences for civilian users.

Don’t throw away that sextant just yet.

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