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The Sequester and Its GPS Discontents

Military GPS programs appear safe for now though FAA programs could be hit

March 1, 2013

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Deep military spending cuts set to kick in March 1 will likely slow efforts to modernize the GPS constellation, insiders agree, in large part because many of the personnel needed to push the program forward will be sitting at home, unpaid, one day out of every five.

The human impact of the deep cuts taking effect when sequestration kicks in on Friday was already evident in mid-February during the program review conference held by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Military travel had been sharply curtailed, conference staff noted, and although the meeting centered on government programs, there was a dearth of military attendees at the conclave in Virginia's Tysons Corner — a shift remarked upon frequently by the industry members who filled the tables. One Defense Department speaker said he had taken a vacation day and driven to conference in order to take part in his session.

The number of those missing at conferences, planning sessions, and technical meetings will be far greater, however, once sequestration sets in.

To make ends meet, the Defense Department plans to furlough tens of thousands of civilian government workers. Although not all government programs are subject to the across-the-board cuts set to sap $46 billion out of the Defense Department by September 31, an Air Force Space Command spokesperson suggested the furloughs would affect GPS.

“We're still reviewing the potential effects of sequestration on our various systems and personnel and are taking all possible steps to mitigate the possible harmful effects associated with this budgetary uncertainty,” said the spokesperson in a written response to a query about the cuts. “However, if sequestration is not averted, the DoD intends to implement a civilian furlough of up to 22 days, likely beginning in April and spread over the remainder of the year, the effects of which will be felt throughout our force.”

“Who knows where these positions will be taken?” said one GPS insider. “Will they be taken in D.C. at the Pentagon? Will they be taken out of SMC (Space and Missile Systems Center) in Los Angeles? It really depends on how all this plays out. Who knows.”

“It can’t help but slow things down,” said another GPS expert familiar with the country’s modernization efforts. “They will go to four days a week. You can’t get five days work done in four.”

DoD & FAA: Different Prospects
For now, though, most defense GPS program budgets appear safe.

Although, should it fail to make its milestones, the already-behind-schedule OCX program that is developing the new ground system for the modernized GPS constellation could be at risk of cancellation in the new hash fiscal climate, more than one source suggested, no one said the program was facing immediate cuts.

Also, apparently in the clear, for now, are the GPS satellite programs. Boeing is already in full production on the GPS IIFs spacecraft, production which appears unlikely to be halted. Lockheed Martin on February 25, just four days before sequestration would take hold, was awarded two contracts totaling $120 million to procure long-lead parts for four more GPS III satellites. The contracts were originally expected to be completed before the end of last year.

Having the contracts in place puts the firm in a stronger position for securing production funding later this year, one expert noted.

“I think it will be very hard for the Air Force to terminate GPS satellite contracts,” said the expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “when they've already funded the long lead items for (spacecraft) five through eight.”

“As far as GPS is concerned,” the expert summarized, “facing this whole issue of sequestration on 1 March, I think we're probably in a pretty good position.”

The Federal Aviation Administration, however, is not as secure.

“A very large portion of the Department of Transportation's budget is exempt from sequester,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a hearing of the House Aviation Subcommittee on Wednesday (February 27, 2013)  “What this means is that FAA will take about 60 percent of sequester cuts for all of DOT, even though our agency only makes up about 20 percent of the department’s budget.”

Those cuts, Huerta noted, would have to be absorbed over a 10-month period as opposed to a full year, making them even more acutely felt. The result, Huerta said, is that nearly all FAA employees, including those normally considered essential, will be subject to furlough.

An FAA spokesperson said they were not providing detailed information about possible cuts. Potentially at risk, however, are the NextGen air traffic control program and the FAA efforts to open the National Airspace to unmanned aircraft. The civil GPS contribution, already a controversial expense within the agency, could also take a hit.

The generation of new GPS approaches to airports could be also affected by sequestration. When questioned by the committee as to why a relatively small percentage cut in the FAA's $16-billion total budget would cause across-the-board  furloughs and potentially curtail air travel, Huerta said personnel costs have grown over the years and other expenses had grown as well, citing GPS approaches as one example. Not only is the agency paying to develop the approaches, he said, it must then pay to maintain them.

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