By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
The Global Positioning System, or GPS, was first developed by the U.S. military in the 1970s, but here in 2014 it’s beginning to show its age. Naturally, this sounds like an odd statement considering the proliferation of devices that have GPS capability made available to the civilian market in recent years.
Everything from smart phones to vehicles contain GPS capabilities and are available to the general public; however government and civil infrastructure use GPS not just for location, but also for timing. This proliferation caused Bradford Parkinson, often noted as the pioneer of modern navigation, to state in mid-February that the system is showing signs of strain and age. Strain and age of the system make it vulnerable to attack, or other forms of failure. Not only would your smartphone lose the ability to provide turn-by-turn directions, the loss of timing on the cell towers would make it entirely unable to communicate. In the modern age this is a most horrifying thought – at least to my 11-year-old.
There is more at stake, however. Much of the emergency protocols in the U.S. rely heavily on modern communication which, in turn, is reliant on GPS. Not only is the civil at risk, but so too is the military for which the system was designed. Everything from the largest carriers in the U.S., to the individual soldier on the ground, to precision guided munitions all rely on GPS. Granted, the U.S. military can still function if a catastrophic loss of global positioning were to occur, but it is not a fate military planners in DOD would like to tempt.
China, Russia, and the EU have all fielded systems with similar capabilities to the U.S. designed GPS, but they face similar vulnerabilities in terms of loss of satellite connection by jamming or direct targeting. The problem has become so profound that the UK and South Korea have both installed redundant ground systems to supplement their GPS connections. In the case of South Korea, North Korea has demonstrated an effective ability for jamming GPS connections near their borders. Unfortunately, the range and full capabilities of these jamming activities are not fully known outside Pyongyang. The U.S., too, has come to face jammers in the field.
A DOD report in early January 2003, made the rounds in the Pentagon worrying officials that Saddam Hussein may have purchased 40 such jamming devices from a Russian firm. When the U.S. invaded Iraq three months later there were reports that some jamming devices were recovered, but the effectiveness left much to be desired. The precision guided munitions that the jammers were meant to push off course failed in their duty – if that was indeed what they were designed for.
Eleven years later the North Korean devices have shown to be somewhat effective in disrupting navigation, but again, their range and full capability – such as disrupting the guidance of smart weapons – is yet to be seen. Furthermore, it’s not clear that the North Korean devices are of a Russian origin, but it’s certainly possible.
It certainly seems odd that nations such as Russia and China would at once field their national version of GPS only to simultaneously work on methods for disrupting that capability, but it is the nature of military development. It is also worth considering that each of these systems operate on different frequencies thus allowing for once frequency to operate while another one is disrupted. Indeed, the race to develop weapons and their respective countermeasures continues apace. This development has led to the need, once again, to replace a functioning, albeit vulnerable, system with something more modern and the scientists at Porton Down and the National Physical Laboratory in the UK believe they have the answer in the form of a quantum compass. For the uninitiated, a quantum compass is a device that determines location based upon supercooling trapped ions thereby reducing the effect of external radiation. This allows the ions to become so sensitive that they only respond to electromagnetic fluctuations produced by the earth. Measuring those fluctuations would then be used to determine location. Scientists in recent years have managed to experiment with the concept of a quantum compass by studying the mechanism in the biological form typically found in avian. So while the science isn’t exactly new, it has shown enough promise for governments to invest in its pursuit for military use. At the moment, any tampering of a quantum compass would need direct access to the device which offers further incentive to investing governments.
Scientists in the UK research facilities estimate that it will take a further 3-5 years before the quantum compass is ready for mass production. Currently, the UK NPL has managed to create a device roughly the size of a shoe box. When one considers the seemingly ubiquitous nature, and rather small footprint, of GPS it becomes apparent as to why the compass isn’t yet being mass produced. Additionally, there still is a long way to go before a quantum compass can be miniaturized and hardened enough for use with precision guided munitions or other military applications. That being said, it is a start and an important start at that.