The global positioning system (GPS) operated by the US government could fail as early as next year.
According to a report (PDF) by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the independent and nonpartisan agency charged with keeping track of government efficiency (or lack thereof), "It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption."
The report cites the failure of the US Air Force to successfully complete the current GPS IIF satellite program, which has cost $870m (£550m) more than originally estimated and is now three years behind schedule. The first IIF satellite is now scheduled to be launched in November of this year. Hope it works.
Even more worrisome is the new GPS IIIA satellite program. According to the report, the Air Force told the GAO that it will complete this upgraded program three years faster than the IIF program - a schedule that the GAO kindly calls "optimistic".
If - when? - the IIIA program falls behind, the GAO cautions that "there will be an increased likelihood that in 2010, as old satellites begin to fail, the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to."
In other words, not only will your iPhone not know where it is, but neither will your geotagging camera accurately insert location info into your photos' metadata, nor your car's navigation system help you find your way out of the morass of freeways that is Los Angeles.
And then there's the small matter of the US Army and Marines knowing where the hell they are as they trudge through Afghanistan's Helmand Province in search of poppy fields and Toyota-trucking terrorists.
Predator drones? Cruise missiles? Nighttime bombing runs? Fuggedaboutit.
The GAO - possibly the only US government agency known to not mince words - doesn't shift the blame to a few bad apples. "Of particular concern is leadership for GPS acquisition," the report pointedly points out, "as GAO and other studies have found the lack of a single point of authority for space programs and frequent turnover in program managers have hampered requirements setting, funding stability, and resource allocation."
In other words, failure starts at the top and trickles down.
The GAO recommends that the US secretary of defense "appoint a single authority to oversee the development of GPS, including space, ground control, and user equipment assets, to ensure these assets are synchronized and well executed, and potential disruptions are minimized."
If that doesn't happen, and you find yourself driving somewhere north of nowhere next year and your car's navigation system suddenly kicks the bucket, leaving you cluelessly lost, don't say the GAO didn't warn you. ®