"We need to control the manufacture and web sale of [GPS] jammers, which is pretty unabated right now," retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen testified March 29 before a joint hearing on space threats and the implications for homeland security. Credit: House Homeland Security Committee video

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Global Positioning System can be disrupted too easily and needs better protection, experts testified during a March 29 congressional hearing on space threats and the implications for homeland security.

“We need to protect the signal and the delivery system,” said retired U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who directed the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was the national incident commander for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “We need to create a deterrent to illegal jamming. We need to control the manufacture and web sale of jammers, which is pretty unabated right now, we need to improve jamming detection, we need to be able to localize and pinpoint jammers…Where we have reason to believe laws have been violated, we need to prosecute offenders and set up consequences for these actions.”

Testifying before a joint hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee and House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Allen, now a  Booz Allen executive and member of the GPS Advisory Board, said that while the U.S. does have the capability to locate and punish people who use jammers, those efforts leave “room for improvement.”

Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) said enacting stricter penalties for jamming may be one of the first things Congress can do to start addressing GPS vulnerabilities.

“When we talk about the jamming and those that have been prosecuted and really the lack of significant penalties going along with that, I really think this is one area where Congress can certainly step up and address the lack of real penalties for some of these violations,” Rutherford said. “I think that’s something that we as legislatures should certainly be looking at very strongly.”

Allen also said the government needs to work more closely with the commercial sector, noting that many critical industrial control systems — from communications to banking — rely on GPS, and companies need to make sure their own anti-jamming protections are up to par.

“If they were denied that service through spoofing or jamming, what might it do to that critical infrastructure sector?” he said. “I think that is a current focus but it needs to be continued. Most of those upgrades to reduce those vulnerabilities don’t happen unless it’s part of an operations maintenance cycle because there’s no monitoring center for companies to do that. We have to change that.”

$6 billion for space threats?

Retired Gen. William Shelton, the former head of Air Force Space Command, warned that the U.S. needs to take action soon.

In 2007, the Chinese demonstrated their ability to destroy a satellite in orbit, and since then have been improving their non-kinetic capabilities like signal jamming and cyber attacks against ground control systems. But the U.S. is still underprepared to meet those threats, he said.

“Here we are 10 years later and we don’t really have a lot to show but a pile of studies,” Shelton said. “We’ve been part of this ‘one more study’ kind of attitude. ‘Well, that may not be the perfect answer, so let’s just do one more study’ and meanwhile time marches on. Satellites have fixed lifetimes, and you need to plan for the death of the satellite. A decision not to move forward is a de facto decision to maintain the status quo with no protection.”

Shelton, citing recent estimates from the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) team, testified that space research and development is at a 30 year low. What’s more, he said, 15-40 percent of the R&D funds are absorbed by management services and technical assistance, not program-related research and development.

Shelton also testified that roughly 80 percent of the $6 billion the Obama administration added to its 2016 budget for space protection is currently allocated to non-satellite programs.

Shelton said, “the executive branch and the legislative branch could get together and agree on a strategy and a way forward and then execute,” but added he knows that sounds “incredibly naive” given the current political climate in Washington.

Still, “I don’t see any other way,” he said. “There has to be some broad agreement here in the whole of government as we move forward.”

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) said there is bipartisan support for legislation addressing shortfalls in American infrastructure, and that improvements to the GPS system should be a part of it.

“Space is now infrastructure just like the grid, and when we do an infrastructure bill, which I know the president wants to do an infrastructure bill…I think space ought to be a big part of that,” he said.

In a written statement, Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ) pointed to an example in his own district of the dangers of GPS disruption.

“In 2013, a man used an illegal GPS jamming device in his truck to hide from his employer,” Payne’s statement said. “This activity interfered with the satellite-based tracking system at Newark Liberty International Airport that is essential to tracking a plane’s location in the air and on the runway for air traffic controllers. Fortunately, the incident did not endanger any flights and no one was injured but we were lucky…The potential disruption and harm that such an attack could do to critical infrastructure, in particular maritime and aviation systems, are particularly troubling.”

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...