The Global Positioning System: A Case Study in the Challenges of Transformation

By Skeen, Matthew E. | Joint Force Quarterly, October 2008 | Go to article overview

The Global Positioning System: A Case Study in the Challenges of Transformation


Skeen, Matthew E., Joint Force Quarterly


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The Navigation Satellite Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR) Global Positioning System (GPS) is one of very few modern innovations that can legitimately claim the overused title "transformational." Like electricity, GPS technology and GPS-derived information are now ubiquitous. This satellite-based system enables a diverse array of capabilities ranging from online driving directions to computer networking to political gerrymandering.

GPS technology is equally pervasive within the military, where it creates efficiencies and enhances tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) in every warfighting domain. Indeed, the merits of GPS seem obvious, but they were not so clear at many key decision points in the program. In fact, the 48-year history of satellite navigation provides an excellent case study in the challenges associated with Department of Defense (DOD) transformation.

This essay focuses on four specific periods in GPS history that provide clear lessons for those individuals leading transformation. In the first two periods, the contrast between the strong leadership that spurred the decision to formally start the GPS program and the lackluster leadership that later encouraged a congressional committee to recommend terminating it demonstrates the essential importance of visionary leadership in the higher levels of DOD. Next, an examination of an operational success and a missed opportunity in Operation Desert Storm highlights the benefit of harnessing the creativity of our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen in the field to accelerate transformation. Finally, a brief consideration of GPS today provides a clear reminder that effective transformation does not shift our forces from one technology to another, but rather creates an organization that is able to stay ahead of adversaries who use the tools of our globalized world to counter our strengths.

1973 DSARC

In December 1973, the GPS program passed through its first major obstacle when the Defense Systems Acquisition Review Council (DSARC) approved entry into Phase I of development. (1) This decision was forged from competing organizational interests both in the Services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The decision was also affected by other elements of the domestic context including the preferences of engineers, precedents set by research programs, process changes driven by the war in Vietnam, and a chance meeting between a new political appointee and an Air Force colonel. In the end, strong leadership was essential to overcoming the inertia imposed by competing forces.

The Navy became the first Service to stake a claim in the satellite navigation business in the earliest days of the space age. When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, researchers at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory began tracking the satellite by measuring its radio broadcasts. (2) These researchers then proposed that the Navy reverse this process to use satellite broadcasts to help submarines locate themselves. (3) On April 13, 1960, less than 3 years after the Sputnik launch, the Navy launched the first Transit navigation satellite to test this theory. (4) In 1964, the Naval Research Laboratory conceived another satellite navigation concept based on highly accurate clocks. (5) This concept developed into the Timation program that launched its first satellite in 1967. These successful programs set the precedent for the Navy to operate satellite navigation systems. They also reinforced the Service's natural preferences to avoid relying on other Services and to field systems optimized to meet Navy-specific needs. Furthermore, the researchers who devoted years to perfecting the systems developed strong personal preferences for their concepts.

In parallel with the Navy, the Air Force and Army joined the game with different satellite navigation concepts. The Air Force initiated Project 621B in 1963 to evolve a concept based on a pseudorandom noise signal.

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