As of 2010 the “world’s only global utility,” the U.S. owned Global Positioning System (GPS), a constellation of twenty-four satellites, has been operating without a viable backup system. The GPS market can be divided into three broad categories: commercial, noncommercial (consumer), and military. The use of GPS is essential to financial systems and is extremely vital to high frequency trading, when milliseconds can be worth millions. Other areas that are heavily reliant on GPS are shipping, air traffic controls, the military, agriculture, railroads, and emergency services. Estimates of the economic value of GPS run into the trillions of dollars.
The long range navigation system or LORAN-C, was a hyperbolic radio land based navigation system developed in the United States during World War II, and served as a viable backup for GPS until the Obama administration decided to pull its funding. The U.S. has been without a backup system since it closed its LORAN stations in 2010.
A report, Global Navigation Space Systems: Reliance and Vulnerabilities, published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, identified a number of threats to GPS as it is currently configured. They range from a catastrophic loss of the entire system due to solar activity, jamming or spoofing of signals, to bad data uploads to individual satellites and the incompatibility of older receivers following system updates.
As critical U.S. infrastructure becomes more reliant of GPS, it will also become increasingly vulnerable to attacks. Many of America’s potential adversaries including Russia, North Korea, and China already have jamming and spoofing tools in their arsenals. Recent reports of navigation issues in the Ukraine, Syria, and the Black Sea suggest Russia is fine-tuning a new form of electronic warfare (EW). Some believe the recent spate of U.S. Naval ship collisions in Asia are related to some form of GPS spoofing. Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet has refused to rule out cyber-attacks as a possible cause.
The Electronic Engineering Journal published a newsletter, What Happens When Your GPS Fails, that discusses the system’s many vulnerabilities and the need for a backup. In August 2017, The House of Representatives passed H.R.2825, the Department of Homeland Security Authorization Act. This legislation incorporates H.R. 2518, the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2017 and its provision titled “Backup Global Positioning System” known as E-LORAN. The legislation also hints at the U.S. military’s need for a resilient precise positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) and a future beyond the vulnerable GPS/GNSS for its applications.