recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is urging the U.S. Space Force to reassess its plans for modernizing the global positioning system (GPS).

GPS is the U.S. military’s main resource for obtaining positioning, navigation, and timing information critical to missions. According to the GAO, the Department of Defense (DoD) has worked for more than two decades to modernize GPS with a more jam-resistant, military-specific signal known as ‘M-code.’

The GPS consists of three segments that cooperate to provide M-code: a ground control segment, a space segment, and user equipment. The U.S. Space Force is responsible for GPS modernization.

However, “it’s unclear whether the current constellation of 24 satellites will meet some users’ accuracy needs,” and while three more satellites would be helpful “DoD may not be able to keep all 27 available consistently over the next decade,” GAO said.

According to the watchdog agency, DoD must assess its operational need for satellites to establish a firm requirement for a 27-satellite constellation. But other DoD efforts could take priority, leaving the warfighter with GPS user equipment performing below the required capability levels.

In addition, the report says that the Space Force wants to expand the use of M-code technology by developing a second increment consisting of an improved M-code chip and card, and a handheld receiver. Yet, the Space Force lacks a major committed customer for the handheld receiver, according to GAO.

“The Army, the largest potential user of such a device, has its own plans for handheld receivers, and Marine Corps officials say the service is still considering its options,” the report states.

“Without a sound business case for its proposed handheld product, Space Force risks expending significant resources without providing a benefit to military users,” the report says.

The GAO made two recommendations to the DoD including conducting an assessment of the number of satellites necessary to meet operational needs, and developing a sound business case for the M-code capable handheld devices or do not initiate the effort. DoD concurred with both recommendations.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.