Building alternatives to GPS

The incident below details the eerie circumstances exposing the vulnerability of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). Initially developed in 1973 by the US Department of Defense, GPS has become the technological bedrock that guides modern industry across continents and oceans.

Vessel Report to US Coast Guard Navigation Center, June 22, 2017:

GPS equipment unable to obtain GPS signal intermittently since nearing coast of Novorossiysk, Russia. Now displays HDOP 0.8 accuracy within 100m, but given location is actually 25 nautical miles off…”

MARAD MSCI Advisory 005A / 007

Geographic Location: Global

Threat Type: GPS Disruption

A maritime incident has been reported in the Black Sea in the vicinity of position 44-15.7N, 037-32.9E on June 22, 2017 at 0710 GMT. This incident has not been confirmed. The nature of the incident is reported as GPS interference. Exercise caution when transiting this area. Further updates may follow.

Today, such occurrences off the coastal waters of the Barents Sea between Norway and Russia are not uncommon. With similar incidents taking place on the Korean Peninsula, the Black Sea, and off Iran. Known as GPS Spoofing, it is an international security dilemma.

With the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, the US Congress mandated the development of a plan to create backup systems for Positioning Navigation and Timing (PNT) and GPS.

On February 12, 2020, the US Trump administration issued an executive order establishing requirements to create a secure and reliable redundancy to GNSS as a matter of national and economic security.

It is well known that Russia has boasted about its ability to create far-reaching GPS Spoofing, such as during NATO exercises off the coast of Norway, while in 2011, Iran had exploited the technology to capture a US drone during the US RQ-170 incident.

In 2019, Russia formed an agreement with ten regional states to develop and improve non-satellite radio navigation systems infrastructure. Likely to be based on Russia’s Loran system known as Chayka, or by the integration of new Loran systems with existing Sat Nav technology. The irony here lies in that while the Western nations gradually dismantled their Loran systems, the East continued to improve theirs.

In 2009 the USCG announced Loran-C was no longer necessary for maritime operations. In 2010 the program was subsequently terminated by the Department of Homeland Security. Europe, recognizing the strategic importance of a redundant navigation system, continued to use and upgrade theirs. However, in 2014, several European nations began to shutter their collective transmitters, and by December of 2015, the radio navigation infrastructure was effectively shut down and abandoned.

As often is the case, we take two steps forward and one step back. Today GNSS and its associated utilities are deeply integrated with a vast array of technology critical to modern industry. From naval ships to mining vehicles, combine harvesters on commercial farms, and the power grid, it has become a crucial part of infrastructure essential to the success and fluidity of our economy. Yet heavy dependence on the technology has ultimately required us to look backward to find the solutions and security for tomorrow.

Fortunately, the US Department of Transportation has remained on task and plans to meet the timeline set by the executive order from earlier this year. The USDOT has already awarded 11 different companies over $2.5m of total funds to demonstrate functional alternatives to the existing GNSS services. The diverse set of companies have been researching and developing multiple solutions ranging from advanced electronic Loran systems to encrypting radio signals and anti-jamming GPS technologies.

This year, the USDOT will be ready to submit its findings on the subject in a report to the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing. After this, consideration will be given as to which companies and technologies offer the best solutions to the issue. The Secretary of Homeland Security will then create the framework for the development and implementation of these alternatives. Within less than half a year of the framework’s completion, contracts will be awarded, and the chosen technologies will begin to integrate as functional infrastructure.

As we increasingly rely more on technology, it is essential to be wary of overconfidence in a single system. The US Coast Guard provides the adage, “Trust but verify.” Yet, with each exposed vulnerability comes new opportunities for solutions and innovation.