Op-ed | America Needs To Stay the Course on GPS Security

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This summer, we learned that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management was targeted by hackers, reportedly in China, and that records on 18 million current and former U.S. government employees were seized. In the spring, we learned that Russian cybercriminals gained access to President Barack Obama’s emails and breached networks at the State Department last year.

Cyberattacks are growing more sophisticated and more frequent. Yet our Global Positioning System, which supports everything from smartphones to smart bombs, remains remarkably vulnerable.

The U.S. Air Force is currently modernizing GPS command and control with development of the Next Generation Operational Control System, or GPS OCX. But schedule delays and cost overruns have put the program under increased scrutiny from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon. The Air Force has even started to examine alternatives.

Given how critical a modernized GPS is to national security and our way of life, it’s essential to see this project to the finish line. Changing course now would leave the United States dangerously exposed — and cost even more time and money.

The current GPS system was developed more than 40 years ago, and Americans have become increasingly reliant on it. Today, we depend on GPS to power our in-car navigation devices, track our misplaced smartphones and “check in” on Facebook. But GPS also supports banking systems, the shipping industry and the national power grid. The military also depends on it for a wide range of tasks, from search-and-rescue missions to missile strikes.

Put simply, GPS is critical to our national security and our economy. So it’s a prime target for cyberattackers. And it’s incredible that we’ve remained relatively unscathed thus far. In 2013, for instance, researchers at the University of Texas were able to steer an $80 million yacht off course through a technique known as GPS “spoofing.”

Fortunately, the new system will employ advanced cyberprotection technologies. It will be able to detect and prevent attacks before they occur. And if a cyberattack is successful, GPS OCX has the ability to isolate and contain it and continue operating.

Already, these technologies have been praised by both the Air Force and the Pentagon. Commenting on a recent Pentagon evaluation of the program, Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, director of space programs for the Air Force, expressed confidence that OCX will be the “most hardened information assurance system ever delivered by the Department of Defense, meeting complex and demanding cybersecurity requirements.”

To be sure, the cost overruns and delays should not be taken lightly. But the OCX program has now moved past the riskiest phases of its development. The first operational hardware for OCX was installed at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado in July. On Oct. 1, OCX passed the critical design review for iteration 1.6, its next block of coding. Two important statements from that review by the Air Force and the Aerospace Corp. were that “the systems engineering baseline for Block 1 is complete and deemed low-risk,” and “the [Information Assurance] design for block one is deemed complete and low-risk,” according to OCX prime contractor Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems.

GPS OCX will deliver a host of new capabilities, including automation for operational efficiencies, improved accuracy, interoperability with geo-positioning and navigation systems of other nations for better global coverage, and a cybersecurity architecture that provides unprecedented levels of protection.

The threat of cyberattacks from rogue actors and countries like Russia and China is growing by the day. U.S. warfighters need GPS services to support air, land, sea and space missions. GPS is also used by millions of people to enhance daily life activities, and is essential to support safety-of-life missions for air traffic controllers and emergency responders. This modernized ground system brings new capabilities and precision to the GPS enterprise. Staying the course on GPS OCX is in our country’s best interest.

Paul G. Kaminski is chairman and chief executive of Technovation and is a paid consultant for Raytheon. He was the U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology from 1994 to 1997 and previously served as a U.S. Air Force officer for 20 years.