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US Air Force continues plans to modernize GPS – But..?

gps-jammersby Vincent T. Pica, II
Commodore First District, Southern Region (D1SR) – United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

As we all know by now, GPS is used in everything from driving to school, to farming and aviation to public safety and disaster relief and recreation, not to mention its military purpose of providing precision navigation and timing to our combat forces. And we’ve covered it here many times. In fact, this is the 9th column* on some facet of GPS – or GPS vulnerability. This column is about both.
Hooked…
First and foremost, GPS is a military imperative. As such, as of February 2016, 72 Global Positioning System navigation satellites have been launched; not all remain operational. The minimum number of satellites for a full constellation is 24 operational 95% of the time; the current number exceeds this. The target number is 33 and decommissioned reserves are available to maintain the numbers.
We as tax payers benefit from its enhancements but it has to work for our armed forces – land, sea and air. And as military requirements go up, so does therefore the capabilities of GPS. In fact, the current GPS system is unable to deliver what our armed forces need – so, starting back over 5 years ago, GPS-III was started to being put aloft. This naturally requires an entire new ground control system. The Air Force took the next step in that process when it awarded a contract at the time to Raytheon Company for the Next Generation GPS Control Segment, now referred to as OCX.
OCX is now the most troubled program in the Air Force – late and over-budget. Recently, OCX underwent yet another quarterly review and was found to have “made progress.” The Air Force statement says that Acquisition Undersecretary Frank Kendall and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, “with support of Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Space and Missile Systems Center commander and Air Force program executive officer for Space, concluded Raytheon has made progress implementing these critical changes.”
The delays triggered congressional notification of the breach and a mandatory review to decide whether to cancel the program or to continue it on the basis that the program is vital to national security, no reasonable alternatives exist, and that the Air Force has a well-founded plan to put the project back on track. The best bet is that Frank Kendall, head of Pentagon acquisition, will recommend to Defense Secretary Ash Carter that OCX be completed. Although Kendall and senior Air Force officials have made very clear their displeasure with Raytheon’s progress, the fact is that this $4.2 billion program is really important because GPS 3 satellites’ stronger, more accurate and more jam resistant signal can’t be effectively used until the ground stations are up and running. Starting over would put the country years behind. This modernization doesn’t leave the “old” GPS satellites flying “blind.” OCX will maintain compatibility with the current satellite constellation and enable new modernized signal capabilities. Win, win, win.
Spammers, Spoofers and Hackers
The Achilles heel of GPS is the extremely weak signals that reach the receiver. It has been estimated that each satellite in a sat-nav constellation is putting out less power than a car headlight, illuminating more than a third of the Earth’s surface at a distance of more than 12,400 miles aloft. This is what makes it possible, if not easy, to jam GPS signals. In fact, our military does it to suppress enemy abilities in this area, as they try to do to us.
Of a more serious nature, GPS receivers can be “spoofed” – not simply blinded by a strong, noisy signal, but fooled into thinking their location or the time is different because of fraudulent broadcast GPS signals. Someone with mal-intent can now buy a simulator, link it to Google Earth, put on a route and it will simulate that route to the GPS. A GPS receiver overcome by it will behave as if you’re travelling along that route. Admittedly, this isn’t easy but terrorists are determined agents.
The immediate solution to the problem is not clear, since the existing US GPS, Russian Glonas systems, and European sat-nav effort Galileo, are equally susceptible.
What to do about it? We can leave the longer term solution to the government but, for us, recall what I have often said – if your eyes say “danger ahead” but the GPS says “drive on”, trust your eyes!
BTW, if you are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at JoinUSCGAux@aol.com or go directly to the D1SR Human Resources Department, which is in charge of new members matters, at DSO-HR and we will help you “get in this thing . . .

Filed in: U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary

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