L’Indro: Russian Threats to GPS

Italian geopolitical site, L’Indro recently wrote an article on the threats to GPS and Galileo signals, which includes a quote from NextNav’s CEO, Ganesh Pattabiraman’s March interview on Russia and threats to satellites. Read the full translated article below:

From the very first steps, in the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, space has played an important role . The operation was accompanied by two actions: a cyber attack on the ground segment of Viasat, the US satellite communications provider, and a vast operation to jam positioning, time and navigation signals. In the first case, it was a cyber domain attack targeting space – like any self-respecting multidomain operation – putting the communication terminals present in the area out of action and damaging the command and control capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces of which Viasat is the service provider.

The second action compromised the accuracy of GPS and Galileo signals on the border and along the Russian offensive lines, but interference and disturbances were also recorded in the neighboring areas ranging from the Black Sea to the Baltic in the direction of Kaliningrad, with repercussions also on aviation civil.

Russian forces have routinely jammed signals from the US global positioning system as part of their war against Ukraine. These signals underlie many aspects of modern warfare, from surveillance drone navigation and missile targeting to enabling mobile radios. The American Space Command immediately specified that in the United States and Europe the GPS system has not yet received attacks that could alter the signals and this means that, for the moment, the Russians «have not yet unleashed their significant electronic warfare”. Capabilities used by Russian military forces since the Crimean conflict in 2014 but also for internal protection; when, for example, Vladimir Putin moves around Moscow,

The most sensitive targets are aircraft, which, however, have antennas capable of neutralizing jamming attempts, while civilian receivers remain easier to tamper with. “Russians have been doing this quite regularly all over the world,” recalled Ganesh Pattabiraman, CEO of NextNav. For this reason, the American maritime administration has issued a warning about the potential degradation of the GPS signal to ships in transit in the eastern Mediterranean. The alterations caused produce data that generate different locations and time zones.

Already in the first weeks of the conflict, a report by the American Space Forces (USSF) showed that the Russian military would have intensified the use of radio jammers (in jargon jammers) on the invaded territory, targeting the satellites of the Navstar-GPS constellation, system belonging to the US Defense, when they are in the portion of the sky visible from the disputed territories. “Ukraine may not be able to use the global positioning system because there are jammers preventing them from receiving any usable signal,” General David Thompson, deputy chief of US military space operations, told NBC Nightly News. , adding: “Of course the Russians understand the value and importance of GPS and try to prevent others from using it.”

Precisely in the face of an increasingly tense scenario, the Washington Department of Transportation has asked to invest more in civil defense systems and the Biden administration has allocated $ 17 million this year to improve GPS protection, three times as much investments compared to the previous year.

Dana Goward, president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, an advocacy group and member of the US government’s advisory board on GPS, believes Russia could do more to prevent precision attacks in Ukraine. Although it has not yet physically attacked any American or European satellite, the technology and ability to do so is not lacking in Moscow which has a similar system, Glonass, which compared to the western one offers more precision in the polar area and has lower performance in that tropical and equatorial. Considering that the availability of GPS is such that the Ukrainian military can freely use it to direct drones and detect positioning, being able to make it inefficient becomes essential to limit the effectiveness of Kiev’s attacks.

Russia has not spared funds for land-space electronic warfare, favoring the development, for example, of the «Zhitel» land mobile system which, in recent Russian military campaigns, blocked the signals of the Inmarsat and Iridium satellites. In 2020, the Tirada-2S system debuted , capable of more intense interference on telecommunication satellites. The same is done by the Karushka-2 and 4 mobile vehicles , capable of interfering with radar satellites, while the Bylina-MM program seems to be focused on “suppressing the on-board transponders” of the satellites. It is no coincidence that the 2016 Moscow Times headlined ” The Kremlin eats GPS for breakfast “. The state news agencySputnik, on the other hand, went so far as to claim that Russian EW capabilities “make aircraft carriers useless”.

Despite this, Russian interference with GPS in Ukraine has not been as aggressive as many observers expected and some explain this by criticizing Russia’s low electronic warfare capabilities . According to other observers,  Ukraine is not the enemy Vladimir Putin is really worried about. His concerns focus on the United States and NATO. In this light, the deployment of Russia’s most sophisticated and powerful electronic weapons in Ukraine would allow adversaries to study technologies and tactics. This would lead to the development of countermeasures and make weapons less effective in future conflicts.

But for what other reasons does GPS seem, for the moment, to have been left out in the war between Moscow and Kiev? Why has Russia not yet launched an attack on this infrastructure, which is crucial for Ukraine, but no less important for the West as well? We asked Serge Besanger , Professor at the ESCE International Business School of the INSEEC U Research Center (OMNES Education).

Professor Besanger, let’s start with the abc. What is GPS and how does it work?

Initially designed for military applications, the Global Positioning System is  a satellite positioning system belonging to the Pentagon, which is also used for a large number of civilian applications. Whether it’s logistics, transportation, agriculture, finance, industry, defense or security, today GPS ensures precise positioning anywhere in the world. The first GPS satellite was put into orbit in 1978 and global coverage was completed in January 1995. The GPS system today is based on a constellation of 31 satellites which allows a user located anywhere on the globe to permanently have at least four satellites within range. GPS satellites move in circular orbits at an altitude of 20,200 km. The system is mainly known to the general public for its geolocation applications, such as  Waze; but its uses are actually very varied. In fact, a satellite includes four atomic clocks, synchronized and traceable, which serve as a reference for billions of users. GPS timing is so accurate that it now plays a vital role in the global industry. For example, modern power plants rely on this synchronization to adjust, adjust, and track electrical power demands and regulate power generation. Additionally, global financial markets also rely on GPS time to record billions of millisecond transactions per day.

How many GPS systems are there and which countries do they belong to?

Russia, then the EU and finally Japan and China have set up their own constellations of satellites: respectively Glonass  in 1993, Galileo in 2011, QZSS and Beidou in 2018. The name GPS, specific to the American system, therefore tends to be replaced by “Global Navigation Satellite System” (SMNS) .

Is Elon Musk’s Starlink also a GPS system?


Why is GPS a “vulnerable infrastructure”? And what threats is it vulnerable to?

GPS signals therefore constitute an essential infrastructure… but eminently vulnerable. Firstly, due to natural threats, such as the summer 2022 solar flares , which disrupted the ionosphere preventing the passage of GPS signals. These storms are becoming more frequent. Our sun has in fact entered a new cycle, whose peak activity is expected for 2025-2026 . A large solar flare could put several satellites out of action, temporarily or permanently. Beyond that, GPS is exposed to all kinds of man-made threats, ranging from jamming to hacking to cyberattacks and even physical attacks. To date, no threats of physical attack on GPS satellites have been made (but such a scenario cannot be ruled out, given the rapid development of anti-satellite weapons ). On the other hand, we are already seeing a rapid increase in accidents, both intentional and unintentional. According to the Strike3 project , a European initiative aimed at limiting the continent’s exposure to “GPS risk”, more than 21,000 interference events in airport communications were detected in the eight main European airports in the month of April 2018 alone. Of these, 1,141 were identified as deliberate interference.A space cyber attack can cause outages, lead to data loss, or even lead to the loss of a satellite or an entire satellite network. By taking control of a satellite’s command and control system, an attacker could alter its orbit, disrupt communications, or even disable its electronics. As in most land-based cyberattacks, the attacker could use the hijacked servers without leaving a trace.

What are the most vulnerable GPS systems?

The satellites themselves.

How can GPS constellations be strengthened?

It is possible to duplicate them, ie using mega-constellations originally intended for the Internet and not for GPS. Former Starlinks. Signals from Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites could in the future be modified to function as a GPS SE.

You wrote: “Contemporary militaries, particularly in the West, have developed an acute dependence on the GPS system.” Can you give us some examples? And is this addiction more of an advantage or more of a disadvantage?

It is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The reliance on the GPS system affects geolocation, missile guidance or navigation at sea or in the air. “Smart” artillery shells, as well as Himar rockets, thanks to their sophisticated GPS guidance, are capable of hitting a target located several tens or even hundreds of kilometers away with an accuracy of less than 2 meters, as demonstrated with hit by Ukrainian artillery  in recent weeks.

‘Jamming’: what is it and with which tools is it implemented?

Jamming aims to transmit a stronger signal in the same frequency band as GPS to disrupt its signals. Available for a few tens of euros , jamming devices are often used in vehicle thefts by hooligans. Civilian devices have a range of a few tens of meters, while military devices can jam or even interrupt GPS signals for several hundred kilometers around. During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the Russian company Aviaconversiya supplied the Iraqi military with GPS jamming devices, weighing less than 8 kg and with a range of 200 km. The threat had been deemed serious enough for coalition attacks to target these devices as a priority. Closer to home, in Nantes in 2017, a sales engineer failed to turn off his consumer GPS jammer left in his vehicle parked at the airport. The jammer seriously disrupted airport operations , and the risk of an air collision led to the intervention of the gendarmerie who geolocated and then neutralized the jammer. At the other end of the continent, North Korea regularly engages, for an obscure purpose, in campaigns against harassment South Korean civilian or military aircraft. Several hundred civilian aircraft may be targeted each month, according to the Korean Civil Aviation Authority. Jamming is basically a relatively easy operation, as signals from GNSS – GPS like Galileo – are weak compared to those emitted by jammers. A GPS signal can be compared to the noise emitted by a cicada, while its interference noise approaches that of a jet aircraft.

How would you describe the ‘jamming’ arsenals of various countries?

All countries have them, it’s quite simple. GPS signal blockers start at 10 euros for civilian versions.

Why, in your opinion, has Russia not attacked GPS systems yet?

Russia has extremely sophisticated anti-GPS equipment and anti-satellite weapons . It has previously jammed NATO GPS signals over a large region, namely the Arctic, during NATO’s autumn 2018 military exercises . In 2021, when Russia had just destroyed one of its satellites in space , a Russian television commentator said in 2021 that the nation could “blind NATO”  by shooting down all GPS satellites. In Ukraine today, Russian forces jam GPS signals on a regular basis in part of the theater of operations. However, this disturbance is not as complete as some observers expected. The main reason is that the Russian forces themselves are in dire need of GPS. In fact, GPS receivers are very popular, much cheaper and easier to use than Glonass receivers. As evidence, downed Russian fighters were found to have civilian GPS receivers attached to their dashboards. Their system, Glonass, depends on terminals produced in very small quantities so there is no effect of scale; GPS terminals are produced everywhere and cost 10 euros, so it is cheaper for a Russian aviator, for example, to get a GPS terminal in China and fix it to the dashboard than to wait for his superiors to find him a Glonass terminal. There are very few Glonass terminals and Glonass is quite inaccurate. Furthermore, Ukraine still uses large stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons, which are unlikely to be affected by forms of electronic warfare.

You wrote: “For several years, the Western armed forces have been preparing for a scenario of complete and prolonged interdiction of satellite navigation positioning systems: ‘GPS Blackout'”. What exactly does this scenario consist of and what consequences would it have?

Enemy powers would destroy all or part of the GPS satellite constellation and/or blockade large areas. Consequences: Over large areas, Western countries would lose all GPS access for their logistics, transportation, finance, defense etc. etc.

What solutions has the West found to a ‘GPS Blackout’?

NATO exercises now simulate a high-intensity, rapid-fire, simultaneous conflict in an environment with severely degraded communications and a major GPS outage for weeks or even months. Western militaries are considering alternative solutions to keep their combat capabilities at an adequate level: launching missiles without GPS and… using the sextant as a navigation tool at sea. Among the more technical solutions, Western militaries are turning to the creation of networks of pseudo-satellites, or pseudoliths, using terrestrial antennas, in order to create a “theatre” localization system, as opposed to GPS which is global in nature. This type of system allows for better resiliency and is also much less expensive to implement. The West is working on an alternative based on starlink-type mega-constellations but Elon Musk is against it for the time being. Quite old systems have emerged, such as the Astro-Inertial Navigation System (ANS, French: Inertial Navigation System Repurposed from Star Sighting), in order to provide redundancy with GPS. The ANS mans some American aircraft, including the BlackBird SR71 spy plane . While less accurate than GPS, ANS allows geolocation and geolocation within 100 meters. Finally, the American public body DARPA – creator of the Internet in the 60s – is currently working on another technology considered “very promising”, the ASPN: All-Source Positioning and Navigation . It is a question here of using signals of opportunity, such as radio, repeater antennas and television, to position oneself. Its British counterpart, ARIA , is working on a navigation system called NAVSOP , for Navigation via Signals of Opportunity, which is based on identical principles.

Can we rule out the Russian attack on GPS systems with kinetic weapons or even EPR ammunition?

No, they are possible, but not at this stage of the war because GPS is essential for them as well.

What could be the NATO response to a Russian attack on GPS systems?

‘Appropriate response’ is what NATO says without wanting to say more it would be useless to specify what it would be.

Read the original article here.