Satellite Navigation & Timing: Good News, Bad News

Wall Street Examiner Commentary, 18 July 2016 – Few people had realized how many things depend on the Global Positioning System (GPS) – until GPS failed. The first thing most people noticed were record traffic jams in the centers of every major city. Downtown traffic lights were no longer synchronized, drivers were even more distracted than usual and could not find their way, so the number of motor vehicle collisions soared. First responders’ radio and dispatch systems worked poorly, if at all. Public safety responses were delayed even more by navigation and traffic problems. When cellphone networks started failing, people began realizing that something had gone terribly wrong.

They noticed that the Internet was not working properly, and ATMs were no longer dispensing cash. Banks, credit unions, and stock exchanges closed for the day because they were unable to reconcile accounts or time-stamp transactions. Scattered power outages added to the general sense of unease. There were isolated reports of violence when people could not access their money, could not get where they needed to go, and saw the power fluctuate. Government officials predicted widespread civil unrest if service was not restored quickly.  

Fortunately, the GPS outage only lasted 11 hours. Unfortunately, though, it cost the nation $40 billion in lost productivity, a massive oil spill in San Francisco Bay, two aircraft incidents, countless traffic collisions, and 35 transportation-related deaths over and above those normally expected.

Current Systems & Vulnerabilities 

The Good News – The above story is fiction, or at least has not happened yet. Although many people rely on navigation and time signals from U.S. GPS for thousands of everyday uses, the satellite constellation is superbly maintained and operated by the U.S. Air Force. It has never suffered a major failure in its 30+ year history.  

The Bad News – The Russian equivalent satellite system, GLONASS, failed for 11 hours in April 2014. Two weeks later, it failed again for half an hour. Satellites are vulnerable to space weather, cyberattack, human error, and growing fields of space debris. Their signals are exceptionally weak and easy to disrupt either intentionally or accidentally. Almost every national military has the capability to jam GPS over broad areas, and the technology is easily available to non-state actors. GPS signals are disrupted tens of thousands of times a day. Fortunately, it is usually across small areas and for short periods, by people using illegal, but easy to obtain, personal privacy devices.

“Spoofing” is becoming more of a problem. By transmitting a similar, yet slightly stronger signal, bad actors can provide false time signals for transactions or takeover a vehicle’s navigation. Yet, GPS signals are highly precise and free, so they have been incorporated into nearly every facet of modern life. As Bradford Parkinson, Ph.D., known as the “father of GPS,” has observed, reliance on these signals has become “a single point of failure for much of America and is our largest, unaddressed critical infrastructure issue.”

New Satellites & Signals 

The Good News – New GPS III satellites will help address some of these issues. And some new receivers are being modified to make them less susceptible to spoofing.

The Bad News – Signals from space will always be faint and, therefore, easy to disrupt. U.S. military forces regularly exercise for “A Day Without Space.” The Russian military assumes as a matter of doctrine that all space services will be denied to them in combat, because it is so easy for an enemy to do so.

Cost & Implementation 

The Good News – A big part of the solution for domestic preparedness is fairly simple and inexpensive. A complementary terrestrial system, based on a mature technology called eLoran, could transmit GPS information at very high power and low frequency, and would be very difficult to disrupt. Although this “GPS-Earth” system would not be quite as precise as “GPS-Space,” it would more than meet the needs of 98 percent of users, and have the added benefit of being usable indoors, underground, and underwater. It would both deter those who might want to intentionally disrupt GPS, and provide a second source of information at times and in locations where GPS-Space was not available. With GPS-Space costing over $1.2B per year, GPS-Earth would be a bargain at about $40-50M per year to build and operate across all 50 states.

The Bad News – Although the federal government announced in 2008 that it would build such a system to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure, it has never acted on that pledge. It has even begun dismantling and disposing of infrastructure that could speed implementation. And while America has become progressively more dependent on navigation and time from space, Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and northwestern Europe are all improving their terrestrial backup systems. India and other nations are following suit.

Government Efforts 

The Good News – The U.S. Congress has begun to notice the problem and ask questions. The 2014 Defense Authorization Act tasked the administration with reporting how it will maintain essential national security services when space systems were not available. And a bill approved by the House and under consideration in the Senate would direct the administration to halt dismantling and disposing of infrastructure that could support a quick and inexpensive eLoran/GPS-Earth build-out. It also authorizes partnerships between agencies and/or with private entities to construct such a system.

The Bad News – Although there appears to be some ongoing discussion within the administration as to the path forward on this critical issue, very little has been done.

The Hopeful News – Many people in the administration are worried about GPS vulnerability and want to help protect the United States. Anyone can encourage and help them, support Congress’s interest, and raise this issue above the bureaucrats to the leadership level. 

Dana A. Goward

Dana A. Goward is the president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, a scientific and educational charity in northern Virginia. He spent several decades as a first responder piloting Coast Guard helicopters, and was serving as the maritime navigation authority for the United States when he retired from federal service.



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