On Nov.15, 2021, a missile streaked into space from Russia. Once above the atmosphere, it released a kinetic kill vehicle that destroyed a retired Russian satellite. The resulting debris endangered other satellites and the International Space Station, including the Russian members of its crew.
A week later Russian troops massed along the border with Ukraine. A Russian news commentator recognized as Putin’s mouthpiece bragged that Russia could destroy all 32 US Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and blind NATO forces.
This was a particularly ominous warning.
U.S. critical infrastructure relies on precise timing and navigation signals from GPS satellites. At a December public meeting, a member of the National Security Council summed this up by saying “GPS is still a single point of failure” for America.
If GPS signals suddenly disappeared, transportation systems would immediately suffer. Everything would slow down, carry less capacity, and be more dangerous. Air travel would be less efficient and safe. Delivery services would be hamstrung. Uber and Lyft would be out of business.
Other critical systems would follow over subsequent days. Cellphone towers and internet switches would lose synchronization. Banks could not timestamp transactions. Control systems for electrical grids, sewer and water systems, and many industrial applications would fail or revert to inefficient manual operations.
And, of course, Putin would not even need not go through the trouble of shooting down satellites and risking all-out war. He could do it with the flip of a switch.
Russia excels at cyber and electronic warfare. State media has boasted of Russia’s ability to make aircraft carriers useless. Russian forces regularly jam GPS and other satellite signals in various parts of the world. They also have perfected “spoofing,” sending false signals to make GPS users think they are someplace they are not.
Russian capabilities also reportedly extend into space with nuclear-powered electronic warfare satellites. These could jam GPS signals across the face of the planet.
A cyber or jamming attack would have clear advantages over destroying satellites. Cyber-attacks are often difficult to attribute and would be less likely to prompt a shooting war. Putin also would have the flexibility to undo things if they started to get out of hand, or once he got what he wanted.
Protecting GPS satellites and signals is essential to U.S. national and economic security. And to keep our national policy and global leadership from being held hostage by threats.
Some have recently opined in SpaceNews and other publications that the solution is more and better GPS. It is true that a modernized and capable GPS is essential.
Yet more of the same is unlikely to fix the problem. The most effective and least expensive solution is to make GPS a much less attractive target.
America’s over-dependence on GPS for essential positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services has long been recognized. To help manage the problem, in 2004 President Bush mandated the establishment of an alternative and backup system for GPS. Administrations promised in 2008 and 2015 to do so. In 2018 a law was enacted requiring a terrestrial backup for GPS by the end of 2020. Each time, though, a lack of perceived real threat and bureaucratic inertia resulted in no action being taken.
We shut ours down in 2010.
And so, our GPS, and our way of life, remain hostage to those better prepared to survive severe solar storms, accidents, and malicious attacks of all kinds.
In a January 2021 report to Congress, the Department of Transportation identified the technologies and services needed to make GPS, and thus America, more secure. It offered a user-focused systems engineering approach that included signals from space, terrestrial transmitters, and fiber.
All these are readily available as mature commercial services. And the projected annual price tag to contract for them is a small fraction of the $1.5B spent on GPS each year.
PNT is critical tech infrastructure. Expanding and securing our national PNT capability could easily be included and funded as a project in the recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.
While GPS satellites and services are at risk from threats like severe solar weather and human error, the greatest risk is undoubtedly from malicious acts by other nations, terrorists, criminal organizations, and hackers.
Providing GPS alternatives will help protect satellites and signals by making them much less attractive targets. Why attack a system if it’s not a single point of failure? Or if users have alternatives operating in parallel or they can switch to in an instant?
GPS and the American people must be protected. We have the legal mandates and funding mechanisms in place. All we need is for the administration to follow the 2018 law and get the bullseye off GPS as soon as possible.
Dana A. Goward is the president of Resilient Navigation & Timing Foundation. The Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit was established in 2013 to promote the Enhanced Loran service as a backup to GPS. The RNT Foundation currently advocates more generally for the government to implement policies and systems to protect GPS signals and users.