It is Friday afternoon and you are meeting friends for dinner at a new restaurant.  You have heard about this new place, but you’ve never been there.  You get the address and enter it into your car’s GPS, but the system failed.  You aren’t concerned.  You know approximately where the restaurant is and know you can find it.  You stop by the ATM for cash and find it is out of service.  No problem, you’ve got credit cards so you continue to the restaurant, only to find out you need cash to pay for dinner because their credit card systems are down.  What is going on you ask? 

You soon find out your normal ability to function was disrupted by an attack on our Global Positioning System. Better known as GPS, it is perhaps only second to the World Wide Web, or Internet, as a U.S. military invention transposed for peaceful civilian use.  

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Today, GPS is the backbone of our virtual infrastructure.  It is something worth knowing more about and worth protecting. To that end, the U.S. military shepherds this national asset with a continued evolution of its satellites and by upgrading the ground segment with the GPS Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX). 

Recently these upgrade programs have been under fire for cost overruns and delays in delivery. The OCX program began in 2010 as a broad based modernization effort with the latest technologies to enhance overall performance. Unfortunately the world has changed since then to include threats well beyond its initial scope. 

As you saw in the example above, our GPS system is not just for navigational use by our military or a personal tool to find a new restaurant. GPS is also the preferred timing reference for global synchronization of systems that integrate throughout our lives.  GPS provides critical timing functions to ensure there is positive control over our power infrastructure.  Our banks and financial systems use GPS timing to keep track of all their transactions.  Cell phone networks require GPS timing to connect calls.  In other words, if the Internet were the highway, GPS would be the traffic lights that enable safe and efficient flow. On the down side, if GPS were disabled, all our lives would be dramatically altered.   To our adversaries, GPS may just be seen as our generation’s Achilles Heel. 

The threat comes in two forms. First, jamming is a localized means to deny GPS services. The symptoms resemble going inside or anytime your GPS antenna is blocked from the satellites. Jamming is generally not catastrophic; however, cyber-attack could be.  Cyber is also a strength of China, Russia, North Korea and available to just about anyone with a good Internet connection and malicious intent. 

Today’s digital age with the Internet highway makes cyber threats a robust growth industry. To date there has not been a strategic attack against our GPS systems, but cyber threats have evolved rapidly over the last few years.  Many of these cyber-attacks have been in the news.  Sony was hacked and blackmailed to not release the movie “The Interview.” The United States Office of Personnel Management had 21.5 million individuals’ information compromised by a “malicious cyber intrusion” that was most likely the Chinese.   USA Today detailed how cyber attackers successfully compromised the security of U.S. Department of Energy computer systems over 150 times since 2010.

Cyber threats are real, growing and have been a strategic surprise to the government at large and programs like OCX.  The U.S. and UK governments fear cyber-attacks from foreign hostile governments or non-state actors.  Russia and China have been diligently building their cyber intrusion capabilities.  California-based CrowdStrike, a U.S. security firm, which helps firms detect and respond to cyber threats, said it has observed a group of Chinese hackers dubbed "Putter Panda" launch attacks against defense, satellite and aerospace firms in the U.S. 

It isn’t a stretch that a disgruntled Russia, China, or proclaimed enemies like ISIS would use cyber-attack as a direct weapon. In virtual terms, the enemy is at the gate and the consequences to our infrastructure will be dire unless we fully commit to upgrading and protecting our GPS technology.  Of course continued vigilance comes with a price and can’t afford lapses so we must maintain the momentum of our ongoing activities to develop and field the next generation OCX control system and satellite upgrades. 

Direct and pervasive threats against our military capabilities and our way of life are potentially unprecedented in our lifetime.  With certainty our enemies have taken note of cyber as a weapon and the Defense Science Board described a potential attack on our GPS as one of the Strategic Surprises to protect from. Now that we know what is at stake in the dynamic cyber environment let us not get surprised. Instead, Congress and the Air Force must fully fund our GPS enhancement programs and our industry must continue to deliver innovation and assured services.

Searcy is a retired Air Force colonel and former Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) commander.