So, there I was, sipping a cold green tea in the shade on my back deck in the beautiful foothills of the Rocky Mountains in early June, when the phone began to ring off the hook. Upon answering, I was hit with a barrage of questions. Have you seen the GPS III Sources Sought? What should we do? Do you have any advice? Should we respond? But by far the question I thought expressed most everyone’s initial reaction of incredulity was “Are these guys serious?” For frankly this Sources Sought does contain a bit of a giggle factor.
The questions continued and the phone rang all week. Officially the Sources Sought being referenced is the GPS III Space Vehicles Production Readiness Solicitation Number: FA8807-14-R-0008. Prepared or not prepared by, take your pick, the space acquisition folks at SMC (USAF, Space and Missile Systems Center), and it has caused quite a stir in the PNT (position, navigation and timing) industry.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, I should explain exactly what a Sources Sought means in terms of what the U.S. government is looking for and how to respond — in my humble opinion of course.
First a Sources Sought, as defined by the business folks at Georgia Tech (GTPAC) who have researched the matter thoroughly and who I absolutely agree with, is not an actual bid or proposal solicitation; instead, it’s a solicitation of interest. You should think of a Sources Sought as market research being conducted by a government agency or service to determine the capabilities and interests of the marketplace in a specific area, product or capability. This specific Sources Sought should be of interest to companies having an interest and capability to produce products relating to GPS III specifically.
So, that’s the boring official definition, but what is a Sources Sought really? Certainly, the official definition works, but more often than not in my experience, the Sources Sought has also been used to:
- Determine what companies, new and established, are players and who is still in the game.
- Determine what partnerships might be formed and how companies might work together to provide a required and often difficult capability. Often government acquisition officials will discover a new capability from a trusted supplier, or discover new teaming arrangements that provide a synergy otherwise unavailable.
- Determine who is paying attention.
- See which companies answer the announcement. Acquisition officials say it is often just as interesting and enlightening to see which companies do not submit a response as it is reading the proposals of the responders, especially if the Sources Sought is being used as justification for a Sole Source award.
- Determine if the project has any hope of succeeding, and if so, how do various companies approach the problems involved?
- Provide an official and public catalyst for lethargic or too-comfortable contractors that are not getting the job done on a current contract. Fear can be a great motivator.
- Enact the old marketing axiom, “Let’s run it up the flag pole and see who salutes.”
Regardless of what you feel the real reason or reasons for the GPS III Sources Sought might be, or even if you have doubts about the seriousness of the release, the one hard and fast rule among marketers is that if you have any capability that even vaguely matches the Sources Sought announcement, then by all means respond.
The official GTPAC advice — and again, I totally agree — is to always respond to a Sources Sought if it appears to be of any interest to you. Just as I have always said to company marketing reps, when asked about the company’s capabilities, the answer, a la Marketing 101, is always “Yes” until it is emphatically “No.” As in:
“Can you build that MDU?”
“Absolutely!” (Stage whisper) “What’s an MDU?”
“Dude, it’s a Mission Data unit.”
“Oh yeah, that MDU. Of course we can build it!”
It may be hard to believe, in this technological day and age, but contracting officials frequently complain about the limited responses they routinely receive to Sources Sought. Responding is usually quick and painless, and can be the first step to place your company in the running for a lucrative government contract. It distinguishes you from your competitors, who did not take the time or effort to respond. The bottom line is it may very well lead to an inside track on an eventual government contract. Just like poker — you can’t win if you are not in the game.
Of course, the reverse is also true, as almost every Sources Sought states. There are no guarantees, and a Sources Sought announcement may — or may not — be followed up by the agency or service with the issuance of an actual bid or RFP (Request for Proposal). The GPS III Sources Sought legalese reads this way: “This notice does not constitute a Request for Proposal. There has been no decision to develop an RFP for the effort in this sources sought notice.”
You take your chances, but nominally it is time well spent, as most Sources Sought require very little in the way of scripted paperwork and government forms. Sometimes the response may be in the form of a simple response on company letterhead laying out your qualifications and stating clearly that you and your company are interested.
However, the government being the government, more often than not the reverse is true, and there may be very specific instructions in a Sources Sought for responding. GTPAC recommends, as do I, that your company follow these instructions to the letter. Give the government no more or less than requested — in other words, give the federal agency or service which posted the Sources Sought notice exactly what it asks for in exactly the form it asks for it.
Now that we are all on the same sheet of music and fully understand exactly what a Sources Sought announcement means, why did this particular GPS III Sources Sought generate so much interest?
Caught off Guard
First I think, well actually I know, this announcement caught almost everyone off guard. It was a surprise, even to those of us who heard rumors about it for some time, not only because of the timing, but also the scope. It far exceeded what most everyone expected —we will get to that shortly. My sources inform me the exact wording and timing were even a surprise to Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company (LMSSC) and Exelis, who are, of course, as incumbents officially excluded from responding.
In retrospect, however, perhaps it should not have been that big of a surprise. General William (Willie) Shelton (USAF), who when this column is first released will have only 48 hours remaining as the commander of Air Force Space Command, had been telegraphing for some time, in sometimes strident language, that he was not happy and something was in the works. He has been uncharacteristically publicly critical of both LMSSC and Exelis for schedule slips and overruns pertaining to GPS III.
Without a doubt, Lt. General Ellen Pawlikowski (USAF), the most recent former commander at SMC (Space and Missile System Center) where the GPS Directorate is located in Los Angeles, California, at LA AFB, let her misgivings concerning a single provider for the GPS III payload be known for some time. Earlier this year, referring to LMSSC, General Pawlikowski was quoted as saying “They know we are not happy — that we are disappointed at the delays we have seen, the technical issues that their subcontractor [Exelis] has had, and probably they are considering whether an alternative source could provide them a better opportunity…I think that Lockheed is doing the right things to figure out how do they best deliver the GPS III in the timelines that they’re expected to.”
In LMSSC’s defense, it was always aware of a possible schedule slip, as was the USAF — for more than two years a bevy of LMSSC engineers and senior managers have been putting in overtime at the Exelis facility in Clifton, New Jersey, to try and wrestle the wayward Mission Data Unit back on track. Many of them are still there, plugging away, including the indefatigable and always optimistic former LMSSC GPS III Program Manager and VP for Space Keoki Jackson.
The MDU is the beating heart of the payload for the GPS III SVs, and it has been in trouble for some time. So, although LMSSC and Exelis are late to need for the three LMSSC GPS III payloads awaiting a heartbeat in the City of Oz or the new LMSSC manufacturing facility in Deer Creek Canyon in Littleton, Colorado, it is not from want of extraordinary efforts to deliver the payloads on time, and those efforts continue today.
Lockheed Martin spokesman Chip Eschenfelder dropped me an email recently that stated: “All GPS III SV01 (Space or Satellite Vehicle Number One) Navigation payload components — including the Mission Data Unit — have successfully completed unit acceptance testing; these components have been integrated onto the payload panel; and the panel is now undergoing panel-level testing [at Exelis]. The SV01 Navigation Payload forecast delivery to Lockheed Martin is Fall 2014.”
As I write this, I have just received an email from Kristin Jones, the senior communicator for Geospatial Systems at Exelis. She states: “Delivery of the GPS III navigation payload to Lockheed Martin continues to progress following recent Mission Data Unit build and successful test activities. The GPS III navigation payload is an original, highly advanced system that brings new capabilities to the GPS constellation, including improved user accuracy and a more robust signal for contested environments. The new flexible design is also optimized to accommodate additional capabilities in the future. This system has now successfully completed testing and has been added to the payload panel. The integrated payload panel is now going into ambient testing. Also, all six of the navigation payload transmitters have successfully completed their ATP testing. To date, significant testing with flight-like engineering units and the SV01 flight hardware indicates that signal crosstalk variances have been addressed, and GPS III will meet all mission and quality requirements. Exelis is on track for a fall delivery to Lockheed Martin.”
The Farmers Almanac states: “In 2014, the autumnal equinox brings the fall season to the Northern Hemisphere on September 22 at 10:29 P.M. EDT. Let’s see, that is only a biblical 40 days and 40 nights from now, and according to both LMSSC and Exelis the MDU problems have been resolved, to the best of their knowledge to date. The MDU for GPS III SV01 is in the final portion of panel testing, and will undergo more rigorous testing, including thermal vacuum testing at the LMCO (Lockheed Martin Company) facility in Deer Creek this Fall. That is very positive news, and it sounds as though the MDU is back on track.
LMSSC has been involved with GPS for decades, and Exelis, formerly ITT, has been involved in producing all or some portion of almost every GPS payload for four decades, since the GPS program began. So why were there technological problems at this late date? I can only say that providing the Gold Standard for space-based PNT is a complicated business, and as the Europeans are learning the hard way with Galileo, slips are just part of the environment in spaceborne PNT platforms.
How Would It Work?
A subset of the official wording of the GPS III Sources Sought, which you can view in its entirety at Fed Biz Ops.gov goes like this:
SMC/GP is conducting market research to review the industrial base and determine whether viable alternate sources exist to the continued GPS III SV production on the current baseline by LMSSC. For every block of GPS satellites over the past 40 years, the primary risk has been the navigation payload. This market research seeks to determine if alternate sources can attain a production-ready configuration for a GPS III SV with an alternate navigation payload in time to allow the Production Ready Alternate Source to compete with LMSSC for up to 22 satellites.
For many, the key phrases are “product ready” and “compete.” This is not only, as many first thought, a Sources Sought searching for an alternate source for a GPS III MDU. It is that and much more. It is a Sources Sought for new competition. SMC is also looking for a full up GPS III production capability that is able to compete with LMSSC for up to 22 more GPS III SVs, and they want it at a FFP (firm fixed price). At this stage, some pundits might say it is a solution looking for a problem.
The bottom line is SMC is asking for companies to step up and produce a full-blown and fully compliant GPS III space vehicle, with NDS and all the associated payloads. This includes a validated, certified and integrated launch capability to compete with LMSSC for the next 22 GPS III SVs, and even though it is not specifically mentioned, competitors could find themselves competing against the United Launch Alliance with launch services from SpaceX, who bill themselves as the world’s fastest-growing launch provider. Who are the competitors? Can you say Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics? Because these are the usual suspects, and all conspiracy theories aside, it appears the government does not want LMSSC to have a monopoly on GPS, and the Exelis MDU worries have given them…well, let’s just say, have justifiably fed that fear. The GPS III Sources Sought is just one result.
So, just what were the results of the GPS III Sources Sought? I could easily say your guess is as good as mine, but I do have my sources, and they tell me on the one hand SMC heard from the usual suspects, and now you know who they are, about what they expected to hear, but then again they also heard from a couple of surprise (only to SMC) companies. Both have significant space capabilities, but have in one case not played in the GPS arena in some time (several decades), and in another case, a well known company may be looking for a way to increase their GPS role.
I also heard that few of the submittals were compliant or met all of the required criteria, and that should definitely not have come as a surprise to SMC. Consider they are asking companies with space capabilities to commit to designing an MDU from scratch — and indeed it may need to be an advanced MDU for new capabilities that will work with the current GPS III LMSSC interface. Those specifications are not exactly common knowledge, certainly not for a Sources Sought. SMC is asking for a full-up compliant system, and only gave companies two weeks to think about it.
Going back to my original premise: How should these companies have responded? Again, Marketing 101 — hopefully they said, “Sure, we can do that,” submitted the required paperwork, and then started scrambling to put a team together and figure out how they can produce and compete. And competing against the incumbents, especially when they are LMSSC and Exelis, is no easy task. Hopefully past performance still matters.
Still the disconcerting, curious and, according to some space companies, the giggle factor, concerns the scope of this would-be proposal. LMSSC has three almost-complete (missing only one crucial part) GPS III space vehicles waiting for a fully tested and certified MDU. Every other aspect of the GPS III program is on track and has been tested.
This is analagous to Sant’Agata Bolognese, a small comune in the province of Bologna, which just happens to be the home of Lamborghini, complaining that it has three brand-new Lamborghinis waiting to be delivered, if only Audi would ship the engines. One of the reasons I like this analogy is that it happened, it works, and I love exotic sports cars. The other reason is that it is easy to see the problem is the engine, not the Lamborghini, which remains as exotic and flamboyant as it has always been. Lamborghini is only going to fix the actual problem, a tardy engine delivery. They are certainly not going to scrap everything and fund competitors to build a new Lamborghini from the ground up.
Or closer to home, consider the F-35 engine issue. The USAF did not ask for companies to design a new F-35 just because it needed an alternate engine. It just contracted for another engine supplier — a simple solution to a complex problem. Viola! Bob’s you uncle!
The U.S. government, DoD, USAF, Air Force Space Command, and SMC is putting forward the proposition that it will pay for another company or companies to compete with a proven system that works, and works well. LMSSC GPS IIRs and IIRMs are on orbit today and preforming well past their programmed life. LMSSC knows how to build the best GPS satellites in the world today. Like Lamborghini and the USAF, LMSSC is just waiting on a subcontractor to supply the GPS III engine or MDU.
So regardless of the purpose or multiple purposes of the GPS III Sources Sought, and whether you think it is an overreaction or not, in the end it opens the door to numerous potential players in the GPS space arena. To paraphrase that paragon of wisdom, Martha Stewart, “Competition is a good thing,” even if you have to pay for it.
Until next time, happy navigating, and remember GPS is brought to you free of charge by the United States Air Force.