Can Congress establish a backup for GPS before it's too late?
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The U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act is up for renewal in Congress, and a provision in the House proposal would require the establishment of a backup for the Global Positioning System (GPS) called “eLoran.” The proposal could help to end almost 20 years of back and forth between administrations and Congress.

Members of Congress have been concerned about the nation’s growing reliance on weak and easily disrupted GPS signals ever since a 1997 report by the president’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection. And in 2004, the Bush administration, in National Security Presidential Directive 39, acknowledged that GPS location and timing signals had been incorporated into virtually every technology.

Of special concern was that its precise timing signal was essential to synchronizing telecommunication and other information technology networks. The directive tasked the secretary of transportation with acquiring a backup capability to protect the nation during periods when GPS was not available. This reflected not only the administration’s post-9/11 concerns about bad actors jamming signals, but also disruptions from solar activity, cyber-attack, and system malfunctions.

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In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would upgrade an old navigation system called Loran-C to a new Enhanced Loran, or eLoran, to serve as the backup for GPS, and Congress was assured the nation was on the right path.

 

But in 2009, the Obama White House’s first budget went to Congress without an upgrade plan. Instead, it eliminated existing funds ($34.5 million annually) that were to be used for the project. Experts widely reacted in calling it a bad national and homeland security move that abrogated a scientifically based agreement reached after years of effort. Nonetheless, many in the newly Democratic Congress were willing to give their new president the benefit of the doubt. But Congress did require that, before the Loran-C system was terminated, the DHS Secretary and Commandant of the Coast Guard certify it was not needed as a national backup for navigation.

The subsequent report to Congress making this certification was marked “For Official Use Only” and seen by many as a bureaucratic sleight of hand. It described many of the bad things that would happen if GPS service was interrupted. Yet it concluded that without GPS, delivery drivers could still use road maps, aircraft could still use terrestrial beacons, and ships could still use radar, buoys, and lighthouses.

The report added that the GPS timing signal was essential to all manner of critical networks and infrastructure, that there was no good backup for timing, and that more study was needed. But, since the Congress had only required certification with respect to navigation, the administration shut down and began dismantling the Loran-C system in 2010.

That year the National Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board (including GPS founder Dr. Brad Parkinson) made a strong recommendation for eLoran or a similar backup system. Subsequently, numerous entities, including industry groups, published their concerns about over-dependence on GPS, its vulnerabilities, and the lack of alternatives.

Congressional hearings in 2014 and 2015 featured administration witnesses agreeing GPS vulnerability was a problem that must be dealt with. They promised solutions were under consideration. These assurances were so sufficiently unconvincing that in August 2015, House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Schuster (R-Pa.) and four other members of Congress sent a letter to the deputy secretaries of Defense and Transportation. In it, they asked about action on what administration officials were describing as a need to “eliminate GPS as a single point of failure for critical infrastructure.”

In December 2015, the two deputy secretaries wrote back saying the government would build an eLoran timing system to protect critical infrastructure while planning for a larger network that could also be used for navigation.

Yet in March 2016 two Department of Defense officials testified before the House Armed Services Committee and made a series of misstatements that seemed to contradict the deputy secretary of Defense’s letter. Their errors were so extensive and egregious that Rep. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiBipartisan House duo unveils amendment to block Iran strike without Congress's approval House panel shoots down funding, deployment of low-yield nukes in defense bill Overnight Defense: Latest on House defense bill markup | Air Force One, low-yield nukes spark debate | House Dems introduce resolutions blocking Saudi arms sales | Trump to send 1,000 troops to Poland MORE (D-Calif.) sent the two a five-page letter listing apparent factual errors and asking for clarification.

As of this writing, 18 months later in May of 2017, there is no sign that any action has been taken on the deputy secretaries’ promise.

At the same time, a lot has happened to cause concern.

  • In January 2016, a timing error in GPS satellites caused some types of receivers around the world to report faults and/or fail. Aviation safety systems, cell phone networks, and most of North America’s first responder radio systems were among the reports.
  • The Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are focusing on improving their already impressive abilities to jam GPS signals.
  • Local disruption of GPS services by “personal privacy devices” have increased to the point where researchers at the Duke Robotics Laboratory have opined that “unmanned vehicles aren’t going anywhere until we get a handle on this problem.”
  • There is evidence that terrorist groups have acquired the ability to deny GPS signals across major metropolitan areas with just the flip of a switch.

It’s little wonder that some members of Congress have concluded America cannot wait any longer for the executive branch to get its act together. Let’s hope they succeed in passing a viable solution before it’s too late.

Dana Goward is the president of the nonprofit Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. He is also a member of the administration’s National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board. Until 2013 he served as the nation’s Maritime Navigation Authority working for the Coast Guard.


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