The Global Positioning System, popularly known as “GPS,” was originally designed by the Department of Defense for use by the military, but it has become a key facet of modern life, relied upon in everything from finding the nearest coffee shop to positioning U.S. armored vehicles around conflict zones in Afghanistan. But in the age of the internet, hacking that system has never been easier — and the U.S. government has no reliable backup plan should GPS programs go down.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, the former deputy assistant secretary for research and technology at the Department of Transportation, says that GPS is already being used by bad actors both foreign and domestic. During an appearance on “Just the News AM,” Furchtgott-Roth cited an instance in 2019 when Iran “spoofed” a British oil tanker’s GPS system — feeding it false information about its location — and guided the vessel into Iranian waters in the Strait of Hormuz, where it was captured and held for many months by the Iranians.
But it’s not just malicious human and military intervention that could take down the U.S. GPS system. Weather is also a concern. The U.S. GPS system is controlled by 24 satellites, which, according to Furchtgott-Roth, could fall victim to “an electromagnetic storm,” or something as basic as the sun.
Dana Goward, the president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, says that a recent study “estimates a 70% chance solar activity will damage the GPS constellation in the next 30 years and a 20% chance it will destroy a big part of it.”
In January, the Department of Transportation issued a report on technologies that can work to back up GPS and keep America humming along if the system, or part of the system, goes down. The department tested 11 technologies that could be used should GPS signals falter, including terrestrial radio signals, fiber networks, Wifi and cell signals, and Iridium satellites.
But in order for DOT to actually install the backup system, Congress would first have to appropriate the requisite funds, but Congress has been slow to act, despite bipartisan consensus on this issue.
Since 2017, three separate laws have been passed that task DOT with establishing a GPS backup. Most recently, the Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018 gave DOT until the end of 2020 to establish the system — but Congress never appropriated the necessary funds, so the department was unable to proceed.
“Congress realizes that this is a weak system and needs to be backed up or complemented by other technologies,” said Furchtgott-Roth, but thus far the legislative branch has been hesitant to spend the dollars necessary.
“When Congress does choose to appropriate the funds, and I hope it will do very soon, the department is in place to do an acquisition system and purchase some of these technologies as backups,” according to Furchtgott-Roth.
“It’s of the utmost importance,” she continued. “We don’t want emergency workers losing their way to an accident. And it’s also important for when our soldiers are in a desert in Afghanistan, they deserve the best that they can have. We don’t want them losing GPS in their armored vehicles in some godforsaken part of the world.”
Furchtgott-Roth is at a loss to explain the Congressional procrastination. “This is a nonpartisan issue,” she said. “Everyone agrees that we need a backup for GPS,” she said, mentioning that both Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — the current and previous chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, respectively — have come out in favor of the project.
Industry stakeholders share similar concerns and confusion about the congressional budget. Seven navigation companies and one nonprofit argued recently argued in a pair of letters to the House and Senate that following DOT’s January report, there is a fresh set of data and a renewed understanding of the types of technologies needed to back up U.S. economic and national security protections that rely on GPS.
“The DOT report provided the data to make it very clear that it is a combination of technologies that need to come together to truly enable nationwide backup to GPS, and it was good to see we could get industry alignment on the findings,” said Ganesh Pattabiraman, CEO of NextNav.
A fail-safe back-up system would cost “only a small fraction of the $1.7 billion we spent on GPS last year,” said Goward.
President Joe Biden and the Democrat-led Congress have what is reported to be a $3 trillion infrastructure spending package coming down the pipes. Members of the navigation industry are hopeful there will be funds included in that mammoth bill to address the GPS backup issue.
Beyond the more than 100 million cars, ships, planes, trains, and drones that use GPS for their navigation systems, emergency responders use GPS instead of road maps to find accident sites and transport the injured to hospitals. Trucking companies use GPS to electronically log driver hours, in an effort to ensure that drivers have not been on the road for too long. Modern farmers use GPS for precision planting techniques that pinpoint precise locations to insert seeds into the ground, water, fertilize, and repeat.
“We can’t keep playing this kind of Russian roulette with the fate of our nation,” said Goward. “Especially when other countries like Russia and China have already taken steps to protect themselves with terrestrial systems.”