GAO discusses DOD PNT management and leadership – again | Panda Anku

In early August, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its third report in 15 months on GPS and other positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) issues within the Department of Defense (DOD).Each report raised concerns about the way PNT programs were managed and governed within the department.

defensive navigation capabilities

In May 2021, GAO reported on “Defense Navigation Capabilities: DOD Develops Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Technologies to Complement GPS.”

Observations included that despite known vulnerabilities, the DOD continues to rely heavily on GPS. Again, these alternative PNT efforts are not well coordinated and receive little support.

According to the report, “opportunities” for the DOD to improve its alternative PNT efforts include:

  • Improving coordination between services
  • Clarify authority and responsibility for prioritizing needs
  • Focus on resilience to GPS as the cornerstone of the department’s PNT efforts
  • Clarifying PNT requirements rather than just defaulting to GPS as “need”.
  • Coordination with the industry.

GPS modernization

In May, GAO released the report GPS Modernization: Better Information and Detailed Test Plans Needed for Timely Fielding of Military User Equipment. about the implementation of M-Code – the purely military, stronger and more resistant to interference signal.

The report noted that M-Code has been under development for more than 20 years and that GPS satellites have been able to transmit M-Code signals since 2005. While there are still program risks, the Next Generation Ground Control segment, known as OCX, is expected to be ready to support the use of M-code by 2023.

OCX has experienced significant cost overruns and is more than five years behind on its original schedule. GAO published a report on OCX delays in May 2019.

However, m-code won’t really be a capability in DOD until user devices are widely deployed. According to the GAO, this will take a few more years.

One of the remaining challenges with the M-Code implementation, according to GAO, was that the department had not collected and validated all of the data it needed for executive planning and prioritization.

GPS alternatives

In the first week of August, the GAO report GPS Alternatives: DOD Is Developing Navigation Systems But Is Not Measuring Overall Progress was released.

A summary on the first page of the report includes what could be seen as a harsh criticism of the way PNT efforts are being managed within the Department of Defense:

“DOD’s entire PNT portfolio is managed by the PNT Oversight Council, a high-level statutory body. However, the Council has largely prioritized the modernization of the existing GPS system over alternative PNT efforts at recent meetings and has no strategic goals or metrics to measure progress on the alternative effort.”

Image: DOD

Too much leadership?

Some believe the real problem with DOD PNT is not a lack of leadership, but rather too much.

“When everyone is in charge, nobody is,” commented a retired senior military officer familiar with the issue.

“Congress has for years been concerned about the Department of Defense’s lack of attention to GPS and PNT alternatives,” the person said. “In 2015, Congress ordered the establishment of the Board of Directors to ensure PNT received the proper attention from leadership.” However, this may not have had the desired effect.

“The council consists of three secretaries of state and the deputy chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]four combat commanders, the NSA [National Security Agency] Director, CIO of the DOD [chief information officer], and many other very high-ranking people. Everyone has far too many other tasks. No wonder the department has a hard time getting things done!”

The department’s CIO is the principal assistant to the Secretary of Defense for PNT. As such, the CIO is tasked with coordinating department-wide efforts. The task is made particularly difficult by the many different actors in the entire department, who all have their own competencies, interests and projects.

Proposed systems and capabilities are being studied and developed by a variety of DOD organizations. This includes laboratories of the five services and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Programs of record, which usually lead to the acquisition of large systems, are managed and managed within the individual services.

A better way?

Aside from recommending improved coordination of PNT efforts across the department, GAO has never addressed the way the DOD manages its PNT business.

“It’s something we don’t normally deal with unless specifically instructed to do so,” said one of the reports’ authors. “We assume that departments know best how to direct and manage their efforts.”

Others are not so reserved. They believe that the current management structure is unable to manage the development, acquisition and deployment of the DOD PNT Enterprise with any urgency or efficiency.

“GAO’s focus on the board of directors is misplaced,” claimed one retired official. “The missing piece isn’t oversight, it’s day-to-day DOD-wide management.”

“They need a multi-service resilient PNT program,” the official said. “This would be separate from the GPS program, which would run its own projects and feed into resilient efforts. The new resilient PNT program should be managed by a joint program office, which could consolidate the integration and acquisition of resilient PNT applications. The office would be the custodian of the critical technologies underpinning the modular, open systems integration strategy, including the digital reference architecture, input and output standards, software fusion engines, and necessary modeling and simulation tools to ensure NAVWAR compliance.”

Such a construct could bring needed focus and coordination to DOD efforts, address many longstanding concerns of Congress, and accelerate progress by coordinating efforts within the DOD and with industry.


Dana A. Goward is President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. He is a member of the President’s National Space-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board.

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