Lockheed Hit by U.S. Air Force for More GPS III Satellite Flaws

  • Subcontractor Harris Corp. tested wrong part in evaluation
  • Air Force weighs whether to let Boeing, Northrop bid in future

GPS III computer rendering.

Source: USAF

Botched testing by a Lockheed Martin Corp. subcontractor on a key component for the U.S.’s newest Global Positioning System satellites raises new questions about the No. 1 defense contractor’s supervision of the project, according to a top Air Force official.

The mistake by subcontractor Harris Corp. forced another delay in the delivery of the first of 32 planned GPS III satellites until later this month, according to Major General Roger Teague, the Air Force’s chief of space programs. That will make the $528 million satellite 34 months late, according to service data.

Lockheed has a contract to build the first 10 of the satellites designed to provide a more accurate version of the Global Positioning System used for everything from the military’s targeting of terrorists to turn-by-turn directions for civilians’ smartphones. The program’s latest setback may affect a pending Air Force decision on whether to open the final 22 satellites to competition from Lockheed rivals Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp.

“This was an avoidable situation and raised significant concerns with Lockheed Martin subcontractor management/oversight and Harris program management,” Teague said in a Dec. 21 message to congressional staff obtained by Bloomberg News.

Ceramic Capacitors

The parts in question are ceramic capacitors that have bedeviled the satellite project. They take higher-voltage power from the satellite’s power system and reduce it to a voltage required for a particular subsystem.

Last year, the Air Force and contractors discovered that Harris hadn’t conducted tests on the components, including how long they would operate without failing, that should have been completed in 2010.

Now, the Air Force says it found that Harris spent June to October of last year doing follow-up testing on the wrong parts instead of samples of the suspect capacitors installed on the first three satellites. Harris “immediately notified Lockheed and the government” after a post-test inspection, Teague said in his message.

Lockheed spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said in an e-mail said that testing of the capacitors’ design was successfully completed in December.

“The capacitors met all mission qualification requirements,” he said, so “we are confident the capacitors are mission-ready.”

‘Successfully Completed’

Harris spokeswoman Ellen Mitchell said in an e-mail that company personnel last year identified a capacitor “that was not subjected to all required qualification tests. Once the issue was discovered, Harris deployed a team dedicated to complete the required capacitor tests. The capacitor qualification testing was successfully completed in December 2016.”

But Teague said in an interview that Harris was required to perform not only a test to show that the part met design specifications but a separate one to assess the component’s reliability and whether it met a requirement to last 15 years. That second test wasn’t accomplished because “they used the wrong test item,” he said.

Cristina Chaplain, a military space systems director at the Government Accountability Office, said in an e-mail that the latest problem “undermines the faith in the progress, if any, that the government and contractor may have been making in turning around a culture that has led to multiyear delays” and cost increases.

The Air Force has decided to accept the first satellite even if its capacitors may be flawed because removing them could delay the delivery until October and cost about $70 million, Teague wrote to the congressional staff. The Air Force is confident in the first satellite’s overall reliability based on 3,000 hours of cumulative testing, Teague said.

The Air Force will have to pay to replace the suspect capacitors on the second and third satellites. That’s because the satellites are being developed under cost-reimbursement-type contracts, which require the Pentagon to pay for cost increases, the service said.

In an Air Force list of priorities that lacked funding for this year, the service said it needed $100 million for GPS III “capacitor repair/replace.” Captain AnnMarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman, said the list represented potential expenditures on which final decisions had not been made.

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