GPS is critical to national security and to everyday civilian life.
Thank you Ronald Reagan!
President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making GPS freely available for civilian use, once it was sufficiently developed, as a common good.
In late April, the Global Positioning System (GPS) turned 25 years old. GPS is so ingrained in our lives that we easily forget about its role in our society. Yet it is vital to our critical infrastructures, our military and our daily life.
As U.S. Space Force explains, GPS is a network of 31 satellites that transmit signals which receiving devices use to determine a geographic location through trilateration.
GPS determines our geographic location and a critical fourth dimension that many are unaware of – time. Each GPS satellite contains multiple atomic clocks that send extremely precise time data to receivers. The receivers decode that information so that an electronic time device can determine the correct time to within 100 billionths of a second.
GPS and Critical Infrastructures
The GPS timing component is critical, according to the Department of Homeland Security, since it is a component in all 16 of our critical infrastructure sectors. Presidential Policy Directive 21 (PPD-21) lists the following as our critical infrastructures:
- Chemical Sector
- Commercial Facilities Sector
- Communications Sector
- Critical Manufacturing Sector
- Dams Sector
- Defense Industrial Base Sector
- Emergency Services Sector
- Energy Sector
- Financial Services Sector
- Food and Agriculture Sector
- Government Facilities Sector
- Healthcare and Public Health Sector
- Information Technology Sector
- Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste Sector
- Transportation Systems Sector
- Water and Wastewater Systems Sector
An error in critical infrastructure microseconds can lead to a cascading failures and throw off the entire network.
Todd Humphreys, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, told Scientific American that the U.S. National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board worries “that a foreign adversary or terrorist group could coordinate multiple jamming and spoofing attacks against GPS receivers and severely degrade the functionality of the electric grid, cell-phone networks, stock markets, hospitals, airports, and more—all at once, without detection.”
Defense Department Worries about Foreign Threats to US GPS
Russia has already proven its ability to jam the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) flying over its territory. It is also suspect of jamming neighboring countries as well. GNSS is a generic name for the various satellites that send positioning and timing data. Our GPS is just one of the many different sets of satellites that can provide this data.
Experts also believe that Iran and North Korea may have the capability to disrupt GPS signals.
American Civilian Use of GPS Jammers Also a Problem
There is also a domestic GPS jammer threat. While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made GPS jammers illegal in the United States, they still exist.
In 2015, pilots flying into Northeast Philadelphia Airport reported losing their GPS navigational signals as they approached the runway. The culprit was a truck driver parked in a nearby lot who was disabling a tracking device in the vehicle using a GPS jammer he had purchased.
Securing Our GPS Capabilities
In 2018, Congress passed the National Timing Resilience and Security Act (NTRSA) to create a backup system for our GPS by the end of 2020. President Trump signed the bill into law in December, just months before Diana Furchtgott-Roth took office as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology (OST-R) at the Department of Transportation (DOT).
Since Furchtgott-Roth joined the DOT in February 2019, she has worked to meet the requirements of the NTRSA. That includes the need to establish a complementary and backup system that users can access when the GPS is not available or when signals need reinforcing. The need for such a measure has been a DOT presidential policy requirement since President George W. Bush signed a Presidential Directive in 2004 on U.S. Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing.
That same month, Trump issued an Executive Order on Strengthening National Resilience through Responsible Use of Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Services.
Furchtgott-Roth told GPS World, “We can’t have GPS signals be a single point of failure for transportation and other critical infrastructure sectors.”
Her first hurdle was that congressional funding for the creation of a backup GPS system went instead to the Department of Defense, although Transportation was the lead agency. This resulted in a delay of the Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) demonstration until March 2020.