Raytheon Co. earned worldwide ridicule in October when its billion-dollar blimp protecting the skies over the nation’s capital broke loose, dragging thousands of feet of cable across the countryside before crashing in Pennsylvania.
But another major project run by the Waltham giant defense contractor has also slipped its tether: a multibillion-dollar overhaul of the equipment that controls the nation’s Global Positioning System or GPS. The Next Generation Operational Control System, or OCX, is designed to work with new GPS satellites that are scheduled to be launched beginning in 2017.
OCX was supposed to be completed in 2016 and cost no more than $1.5 billion. Instead it’s years behind schedule and much more expensive; the Air Force now expects OCX won’t be completed until 2022 and could cost as much as $5.6 billion, according to the Reuters news service.
The Air Force and Raytheon each declined to comment in detail. But military analysts and the US Government Accountability Office say both Raytheon and the Pentagon dramatically underestimated the difficulty of creating a more sophisticated and secure ground control system.
Indeed, a year ago, when the overruns surfaced as an issue, Raytheon chief executive Thomas Kennedy pointed to the sheer complexity of the GPS upgrade, noting “it is revolutionary relative to adding information capability to a very large ground station for the GPS system. We have been working with the Air Force on that program. We believe that we have turned a corner on that program moving forward,” Kennedy told stock analysts in a conference call in January 2015.
But since then it doesn’t appear the situation has improved — at least to the Pentagon’s satisfaction.
“The OCX program is a disaster, just a disaster, and it’s embarrassing to have to stand in front of people and try to defend it, so I won’t,” General John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said at an event in Washington last month, according to Reuters.
Raytheon officials declined to be interviewed for this article. But, in a statement, the company said it is “focused on continued development of the modernized, cyber-hardened GPS OCX. We are fully committed to delivering, without compromise, the modernized GPS ground controls envisioned and required by the Air Force.”
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., defense think tank, said he was surprised to see a company of Raytheon’s reputation have so much trouble.
“This is a core technology area for Raytheon,” Thompson said. “It’s just unusual to see them get so far off track on this.”
In a report issued in September, the GAO pointed to a key moment in 2012, two years after Raytheon began work: the Air Force goaded the company into speeding up development to have the ground control system ready for the new generation of GPS satellites that were supposed to be in orbit in 2014. The speed-up proved unnecessary; the satellites themselves were delayed until 2017.
But the scheduling shift required a major revamp of the OCX project and a major increase in costs.
Thompson said another Pentagon request — that the system be impervious to hackers — also proved to be a burden.
“The Pentagon had become very preoccupied by potential cyberattacks both from state and non-state actors,” said Thompson. “So it built a very imposing set of requirements — far beyond what would typically be required of even a military installation.”
According to the GAO, Raytheon did not understand the full extent of the Air Force’s data security standards until 2013, three years after the project had begun. Raytheon had assumed many cybersecurity standards would be waived — a common practice in other military programs. Instead, the Air Force insisted on getting everything it originally wanted, as well as additional features to fend off new threats.
“Consequently, Raytheon found that it had greatly underestimated the cost and time to meet these requirements,” the GAO report said.
The OCX fiasco has spawned concern in Congress. “What’s going on is interminable delay and an extraordinary cost overrun,” Representative John Garamendi, a California Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview.
In October, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain issued a report that branded the delays and cost overruns “indefensible.”
The military needs the new OCX to enable more accurate navigation by land, sea, and air forces and to make the system tougher for an enemy to hack or jam. And in the 20 years since the original GPS network was completed, it’s become a vital tool for millions of businesses and billions of people around the world.
The GPS system is in no immediate danger of collapse. But some of the 31 active GPS satellites are approaching the end of their useful lives. And the new wave of satellites due to begin launching in 2017, from Lockheed Martin Corp., include upgrades that can’t be managed over the existing ground control network. These improvements will be useless until Raytheon finishes OCX.
Until then, the Air Force may have to manage the new satellites through the old-school ground control system. That means operating the new satellites in “legacy mode,” akin to running Microsoft’s old DOS software on a computer designed for Windows 10. Many improved features will be unavailable.
This is already happening with M-code, a military GPS frequency that’s much stronger and less susceptible to jamming. Eighteen newer GPS satellites broadcast M-code, which will be standard on future satellites.
“You should be able to use it deeper indoors and in higher levels of jamming — all the things we want for war-fighting,” said John Betz, a senior scientist at the Mitre Corp. in Bedford, a military contractor that helped develop M-code.
But the military won’t access M-code until OCX is complete. The same goes for a new GPS frequency tailored especially for aircraft and a second signal for civilian use, which will make commercial and personal GPS receivers as accurate as those used by the military. None of these new features will benefit anybody until the OCX is complete.
Garamendi, the California congressman, is calling on the government to install a backup, a ground-based system called eLoran, that would transmit navigation signals from radio towers. It’s an enhanced version of World War II-era technology that was shut down by the US government in 2010.
But an eLoran buildout would take years, and GPS must still be upgraded. Defense workshop Northrup Grumman Corp. has said it would bid on upgrading OCX if an exasperated Pentagon decides to give up on Raytheon. But there’s no sign that this is about to happen.
After all, said Thompson, “If you try to start over, it’ll take forever.”Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeTechLab.