The European Space Agency realized and announced the need to protect the capabilities of GNSS and to design systems that will provide the characteristics needed in the future. The United States government has done neither of these.
The introduction of satellite navigation systems into the world has produced a revolution in the way that many of us navigate from one place to another. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is the best known, and most used of these systems, but others are beginning to make their way into common usage.
Four major systems used for Navigation, so receiver manufacturers are beginning to make their products capable of receiving signals from more than one system. It is estimated that now, only 35 percent of the world’s receivers respond only to GPS. The proliferation of systems has led to the use of a generic identifier – GNSS, the Global Navigation Satellite System, rather than one that concentrates on GPS, alone.
Most Americans refer to their navigation system as “my GPS”. They believe that it shows them where they are located and that it gives them instructions as to how to proceed to the desired destination.
But the GPS system knows nothing about a user’s position, such as a street name, and nothing about possible routes. The system only broadcasts a set of signals, called ranging signals that can enable the user to generate software algorithms to perform those tasks. Even then, the user device can only determine the time between the transmission of the signal and its reception by the device. If one is interested in time, as is the case for computer networks, ATM machines, and stock transactions, that is the end of the process.
If navigation is the goal, time is converted to distance by multiplying transit time by the well-known velocity of light, with appropriate corrections for phase shifts induced by the ionosphere. If the positions of the transmitting satellites are known accurately, intended distances can be used to calculate a position.
Determining absolute time is becoming more important every day as data transmission rates increase. Diagnosing, and tracing, cyber incursions is depending more, and more, on determining relative, and absolute, times of attacks in detail.
The European Space Agency realized and announced the need to protect the capabilities of GNSS and to design systems that will provide the characteristics needed in the future.
The United States government has done neither of these.
Representatives of the departments of State (DoS) and Homeland Security (DHS) tend to present inane briefings in various venues in which they carefully avoid identifying the GPS as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, even though even the casual observer would do so, and even more carefully avoid committing their departments, or themselves, to actually addressing the issues involved in a constructive way.
Congress, on the other hand, has held hearings in which the nebulous term backup is used, without a specific definition, and in the end, result in the delivery of platitudes, but no funding or specific instructions to permit useful work to begin. Yet, Congress has committed enough funding to essentially, useless programs, such as GPS III. Such funds could instead pay for a system that would solve both vulnerability and accuracy problems associated with GPS.
With bureaucracy and politics abound, everyone seems to focus on cost, rather than on benefit. So, as bureaucracies do, they find time and funding to establish new career-enhancing organizations, such as Risk Centers, which are likely to do little to improve existing conditions.
What is the cost of doing without GNSS?
The only detailed study that I could find was one done in 2017 by a collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Royal Institute of Navigation (Economic impact to the UK of disruption to GNSS, April 2017). They assigned costs in detail, such as the cost of traffic jams caused by lost motorists and taxi drivers. A bit far out? Sure, but, at least an honest attempt to quantify parameters of the problem. Their result was that a 5-day outage of GNSS would cost the UK a total of 5.2 billion pounds.
Although the UK and the USA are not identical in nature, they have many similarities as modern western nations. If anything, the USA is more dependent on GPS than the UK. Scaling by the ratio of GDP of the USA compared to that of the UK and using the current currency conversion factor, the scaled cost to the US for only a single day without GPS is $6.7 billion. That is more than enough to build a more modern, protected, system. Perhaps Congress should take note that a short period of not having GPS will cost more than building one that will not fail.
So far, problems have been small ones. But, in an increasingly dangerous world, the consequences of continued dawdling can be disastrous. We probably have some time. How much? Who knows?
* Dr. Gene H. McCall, is Laboratory Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and an Affiliate Research Professor, Desert Research Institute, Reno Nevada. Among his many assignments, Dr. McCall served as the Chief Scientist with Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the ACD’s Economic Warfare Institue.