Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are incredibly beneficial to the United States national security state, but are also are quite vulnerable to cyberattacks. GPS has a variety of applications given its universal benefits, ranging from agriculture to highway and railways to public safety and disaster relief.
Discussing this from a more scientific perspective in the Scientific American, GPS systems have “allowed scientists to illuminate how the ground moves during big earthquakes…led to better warning systems for natural disasters such as flash floods and volcanic eruptions” while some researchers have been using GPS to act “as snow sensors, tide gauges and other unexpected tools for measuring Earth.”
From a military perspective, every operation or mission any branch or combatant command of the U.S. Armed Forces conducts requires the usage of GPS technology; gathering actionable information and intelligence, the navigation and refueling of sea and aircraft, surveying terrain and geographical areas, and conducting combat and regular search and rescue operations (C/SAR).
“From a military GPS perspective, GPS provides data for many things, from ground troop positioning and navigation to precision weapon guidance. GPS also provides precise timing that is used in the compute and communication products used by our warfighters. Disruptions can sabotage mission success,” says Greg Wild, Director of Navigation and Sensor Systems at BAE Systems.
Given how prolific GPS is used to conduct national defense and security missions, one would expect GPS to be quite well-defended, however, this is not the case. GPS is vulnerable to cyberattacks and other technical threats which could severely cripple the U.S. national defense systems and society as a whole.
In the past two years, many have commented on the vulnerability of such systems. General John W. Raymond, Chief of Space Operations of U.S. Space Force (USSF), stated in a congressional hearing last May that threats like signal jamming are “real today and concerning”.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to declassified documents gained through Freedom of Information Act requests, has also admitted there are inherent security risks with GPS systems, stating, “In the short term, the risk to the nation is assessed to be manageable. However, if not addressed, this threat poses increasing risk to U.S. national, homeland, and economic security over the long term … The increasing convergence of critical infrastructure dependency on GPS services with the likelihood that threat actors will exploit their awareness of that dependency presents a growing risk to the United States.”
Both the military and homeland security sectors have recognized there are significant problems with the use of GPS. In the past two years, both the American financial industry, the Department of Homeland Security, and individual academics have taken steps to try and find new ways of defending satellites and GPS systems from intrusions by state and non-state actors and have implemented certain policies meant to better protect from cyberattacks and intrusions.
“The biggest threats to GPS systems today are signal jamming and spoofing,” says Wild. “Jamming threats can be intentional or unintentional … the bigger concern is with higher power and more sophisticated jammers and spoofers. Nation states are the largest potential perpetrators of intentional attacks on GPS systems.”
However, this is currently changing, partly due to the Ukraine-Russia Crisis. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, to some, it was a large reminder to better defend GPS systems. Already, in November of 2021, Russia had launched “a missile at one of its own satellites … generating more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of pieces of smaller debris” which threatened not only U.S. satellites, but any satellite orbiting the globe.
In a Space News op-ed by Sarah Miniero, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, she advocates for the launching of satellites which “provide better accuracy, anti-jamming capabilities, and opportunities for allied civilian connectivity which could prove crucial in the context of the continued Ukrainian conflict” and urges both private industry and the national defense sector “improve upon defensive anti-jam capabilities and most importantly also provide the possibility for continued on-orbit development and experimentation to keep pace with future threats”. She also strongly pushes for interagency and international cooperation with other Western allies to defend against GPS striking.
These improvements would drastically help in making the United States safer against foreign threats and help in better protecting against cyber threats to GPS systems. Furthermore, this development of anti-jamming capabilities would allow the country to better support foreign militaries and nation-state allies by especially defending against Russia, China, Iran and other nation-state and non-state actors whom threaten American goals abroad.