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By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
What do Finland’s civilian pilots losing air navigation signals, ships in the Black Sea showing their location 40 miles away on land and U.S. drivers avoiding tolls have in common? Each situation involves jammers that affect the Global Positioning System (GPS).
What Is the Global Positioning System?
The Global Positioning System is a network of satellites that transmit signals. Receiving devices use these signals to determine a geographic location through trilateration.
To determine a position on the ground, for example, the minimal requirement is three incoming signals. But with more incoming signals, accuracy improves. To determine both a geographic location and altitude, there need to be at least four signals.
GPS does not only determine geographic locations, but also provides a critical fourth dimension that many are unaware of – time. Each GPS satellite contains multiple atomic clocks that send out extremely precise time data to the receivers. The receivers decodes that information and allows an electronic device to determine the correct time to within 100 billionths of a second.
Why Is GPS Important?
Myriad infrastructures, businesses and electronic products rely on a GPS’s time and location synchronization. They include:
- Communication industries
- Power and utility companies
- Emergency services (police, fire and medical)
- Financial markets
- Transportation (air, maritime, rail and road)
- Medical devices
- Gas stations
- Smart home devices
In addition, many other devices are reliant on GPS to some degree. The number and types of items that incorporate GPS is growing as technology advances.
Outside of the United States, other countries rely mainly on China’s BeiDou, Russia’s Glonass and Europe’s Galileo programs. All of these systems, along with the U.S. GPS system, are part of the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS).
Russian Use of Jammers Interferes with GNSS
In recent years, the Russians began jamming the GNSS. Initially, Russia just jammed or spoofed the GNSS at times to disguise the location of President Putin. That tactic was intended to ensure Putin’s safety and to prevent any weapons that relied on satellite-based location from tracking him.
For instance, an incident involving the ships in the Black Sea occurred when Putin drove across the Kerch Bridge from Russia to Crimea. That caused 24 ships anchored nearby to show their location at the Anapa Airport, over 40 miles away.
Putin’s palatial summer home near the Black Sea is also protected by a permanent GNSS spoofing zone. That gives his home the same level of airspace protection and GNS interference as the Kremlin.
However, Russia has expanded its GNSS jamming, blocking and spoofing over the past several years. Their GPS jammers have advanced to a point where they are likely able to conduct widespread “attacks” against GNSS receivers, thus potentially jamming all navigation systems in a chosen area.
American Use of GPS Jammers Also a Problem
There is also a GPS jammer threat within our own nation. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made GPS jammers illegal in the United States, they still exist.
In 2015, pilots flying to the Northeast Philadelphia Airport reported losing their GPS navigational signals as they approached the runway. The incident was caused by a truck driver, parked in a nearby lot, who was disabling a tracking device through the use of a GPS jammer he purchased.
LORAN, America’s Early GPS
During World War II, the United States developed the long-range navigation (LORAN) system for ship convoys crossing the Atlantic Ocean and for long-range patrol aircraft. In 1958, the U.S. Coast Guard assumed control of LORAN.
But due to the accuracy of GPS, the Obama administration decided in 2009 that LORAN “no longer served any governmental function and it is not capable as a backup for GPS.” The government declared the system obsolete and both the U.S. and Canada shut down their LORAN beacons.
By 2015, other countries across the world had also shut down their beacons. An enhanced trial version of LORAN, known as eLoran and accurate within 65 feet, was stopped as well.
The National Timing Resilience and Security Act of 2018 Creates a Backup System for GPS
The reliance on GPS for location and time is so crucial that U.S. Senators Cruz (R-Texas) and Markey (D-Mass), along with Congressmen Garamendi (D-CA) and Hunter (R-CA) worked together to pass the National Timing Resilience and Security Act of 2018. President Trump signed it last December.
This Act requires the creation of a backup system for GPS by the end of 2020. The requirements include that the backup system should have the following characteristics:
- The ability to provide wide-area coverage
- Synchronized with coordinated universal time
- Extremely difficult to degrade
- Capable of being deployed to remote locations
Additionally, the backup system needs to work in concert with and complement other similar positioning, navigation, and timing systems, which includes enhanced long-range navigation systems and nationwide differential GPS systems. It should also be capable of adaption and expansion to provide position and navigation capabilities.
Furthermore, the Act specified the use of applicable private sector expertise to develop, construct, and operate the system. It must be fully operational for at least 20 years.
In a 2018 press release, Senator Cruz (R-Texas) said that “If the current system were disrupted for even just a few hours, there would be an immediate threat to the American people, the economy, and our very way of life.” Senator Marley (D-Mass) added, “The nation’s banking, communications, electricity, and transportation sectors rely on the precise timing provided by GPS. We cannot allow this vital system to be imperiled by natural phenomena like solar flares or coordinated attacks like jamming.”
More Progress Is Needed on the GPS Backup System
In early March, Congressman DeFazio (D-Oregon), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee stated out of concern for the slow progress on the GPS backup, “we are concerned that 14 months after the mandate…became law, and 11 months after Congress provided substantial funds…the administration has made little observable progress.”
In a bipartisan letter, Congressmen Larson (D-Washington) and chair of the Aviation Subcommittee, Maloney (R-New York), chair of the Coast Guard and Marine Transportation subcommittee, and Garamendi (D-California), chair of the Armed Services Readiness subcommittee, asked Transportation Secretary Chao for a status update. As of early May, no update appears publicly available.
As the U.S. increasingly depends on technology to run many aspects of our lives, the fact that this technology requires extremely precise timing is not lost. As the U.S. Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions pointed out, GPS jammers causing timing problems is a point of failure for the wireless system and in our growing Internet of Things.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master’s of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.