Lockheed's GPS III Satellites May Face New Delays Over Parts

  • Flawed capacitors from Harris Corp. may add 3 months to delays
  • Satellites provide directions for drivers, hikers and bombs

Lockheed Martin Corp.’s new GPS satellites could face added delivery delays of as much as three months after discovery of a cracked component in testing, as the Air Force weighs whether to open the troubled program to a multibillion-dollar competition.

The latest potential delay means that six of the first eight GPS III satellites under contract may fall behind schedule. The first, now scheduled to be delivered in August, is 28 months late because of difficulties with the satellite’s navigation payload that Lockheed and Air Force officials say have been corrected.

The Air Force is deciding whether to hold a competition for as many as 22 of 32 planned satellites, in a move that could prove costly to Lockheed and open an opportunity to competitors Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp., which have expressed interest in bidding. The service is reviewing potential competing designs before deciding by February whether to launch a full competition, according to officials.

Small cracks in one type of ceramic capacitor made by Harris Corp. were discovered by the company in early testing before it was installed, and a replacement had to be produced. The first GPS III satellite was inspected after the discovery and no problems were found.

Award Fees

But the navigation payloads of the second through seventh satellites are each projected to be delivered as much as three months late, according to the Air Force and Lockheed Martin.

“This was a one-time issue isolated to specific modules, indicating that it was a workmanship issue or parts process issue and not a design flaw,” James Spellman, a spokesman for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said in an e-mail.

The Air Force will evaluate later this year whether Lockheed loses any award fees over the capacitor issue, Spellman said. Because of the delays with the first satellite, Lockheed as of October had lost $164 million in fees out of a pool of $437 million provided as incentives and awards for performance, according to Air Force data.

Smartphones to Bombing

The Global Positioning System developed by the U.S. military provides turn-by-turn directions on the smartphones of drivers and hikers as well as coordinates for bombs hitting Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq. New GPS III satellites promise increased accuracy for navigation, a signal compatible with similar European satellites and improved security against cyberattacks.

The navigation payload on GPS satellites keeps precision time and transmits navigation and timing signals worldwide. It includes the mission data unit, atomic frequency standard clocks and transmitters.

Although the payloads for GPS III satellites two through seven “are facing a
delay of one to three months due to cracks in capacitor components that were
uncovered during subassembly testing,” the issue has been fixed, Lockheed Martin spokesman Matt Kramer said in an e-mail.

“These payload delays were absorbed by the program’s internal schedule margin, and are not expected to cause a delay in the satellite ‘available for launch’ delivery date,” as the company remains “committed to delivering these to the Air Force time,” Kramer said.

‘Resourceful People’

Ellen Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Melbourne, Florida-based Harris, said in an e-mail that “we were able to identify the cause quickly and solve it. There are highly resourceful people at our Clifton, N.J., facility who troubleshoot issues like this. We also benefited from assistance provided by other Harris quality and process colleagues.”

Cristina Chaplain, a director with the U.S. Government Accountability Office who supervises its oversight of space systems, said such programs often have setbacks “and it seems like the cracks are small and manageable.”

“That said, we don’t know a whole lot behind what happened,” she said. “These could indicate larger problems with quality management for the subcontractor, as also is often the case.”

“We’ve got to hold a mirror up” because “we are not happy with the delay,” Richard Ambrose, Lockheed’s executive vice president for space systems, said in an interview. But he said Lockheed, the biggest U.S. contractor, maintains “very strong system controls” on parts.

Ground Stations

The satellite delays are separate from problems with a ground system being built by Raytheon Co. to take advantage of the new satellite’s capability. It also has been plagued by delays and is running almost five years late. Air Force Lieutenant General Sam Greaves, head of the Space and Missile Systems Center, told reporters last month that it’s the Pentagon’s “No. 1 troubled program.”

The Air Force plans to award Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed a contract this year for the ninth and tenth GPS III satellites.

While the Air Force hasn’t provided a cost estimate for the 22 satellites that may be awarded through competition, the service said in a statement that the eventual inventory of 32 satellites will be valued at about $7.6 billion. A production contract could be awarded in fiscal 2018, officials said.

“We’ll vigorously compete to win” a competition for the later satellites, Lockheed’s Ambrose said. “The real issue is having a satellite that’s been tested, proven and qualified.”

“While we’re not proud of” the delays, “we are smarter now,” he said. “We know what other system risks to look for.”

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