Air systems

Disruption to satellite navigation signals at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel in 2019 was reportedly caused by GPS jamming.

There’s the rub – unlike jamming and spoofing, a kinetic attack is much harder to hide behind plausible deniability and, therefore, is more likely to invite a direct response and possibly lead to escalation. However, there are other issues beyond deniability. “If we look at low-Earth orbit – where kinetic anti- satellite missiles are more likely to be deployed – there are many, many satellites,” Stickings explains. “If you have a constellation of 200 satellites that are linked, destroying one probably won’t affect the capability very much. So, in that sense, you start to think, ‘kinetic anti-satellite missiles are very expensive, but these satellites can be very cheap’.”

Civilian fallout

The real conflict in space, then, has been more about the denial and disruption of space assets and information rather than their destruction. That’s not to say, however, that these technologies don’t cause damage back on earth or in the air. While military GPS operations are heavily protected, civilian ones are often less so – and, when they overlap, there can be serious ramifications for the civilian populace, even when unintended. In July 2019, Ben Gurion Airport in Israel experienced a massive GPS-denial attack, which affected the country’s civil aviation sector for the three weeks. The exact cause remains unconfirmed, but Israeli experts pointed to a possible spillover from Russian forces in Syria, which were making heavy use of GPS jamming technology. As GPS continues to play an integral role in our society, the likelihood of similar unintended attacks can only grow. Stickings points out that part of problem here is GPS offers little distinction between a guest in a warzone or an active player – making it part of a so-called “grey zone activity”. Much of Russia and China’s current activity operates in this domain, she says. “It is a constant competition in that sub- threshold area. I think, in that sense, GPS jamming is going to become more common. Because of its potential range, it can have those spillover effects, which has consequences in terms of economic loss and the impact on other areas of civilian life.” However, it’s not just Russia and China that are running these kinds of operations. Militaries in

the West also make use of jamming and spoofing technologies, and it is all too easy for what seems like a targeted strike on an opponent’s satellite navigations to have an unintended affect on the population. “That is the risk, both for civilian and military organisations,” Braw notes. “And as we know – in today’s geopolitical climate – a civilian entity can be targeted as part of a geopolitical dispute or to launch [one], so that the two are not separate in the way they used to be.” Whether or not civilians are intentionally targeted by anti-GPS technology, the fallout raises the same questions. “We’ve seen organisations like the Red Cross start to become engaged in some of these conversations and around cyber as well,” says Stickings. “On how military operations employ [anti- GPS] capabilities, which could have spillover effects on civilians. And the extent to which a military can be held responsible for damage to civilian economies or civilian operations, particularly where there could be issues around a humanitarian crisis, for example.” So, then, what is the solution? Militaries have already been hard at work encrypting and protecting their GNSS signals and receivers, making it more difficult to interfere with them. Similarly, some are working on back-up systems, in the unlikely event that the network they use would fail entirely. At the same time, many have started holding training exercises in the case of a GPS-denied environment. “What they’re doing is essentially returning to manual skills as a backup,” says Braw, noting that celestial navigation has been around for thousands of years, and offers the benefit of being more secure than satellite technology ever could be. “I think it’s sort of endearing that the human brain, with very simple instruments, can be essentially unbeatable in a way that the best technology is not. Yes, it’s not as precise, but the other side can’t interfere with it.”

Just as the Gulf War had demonstrated the change in the speed of warfare, we’re also learning to see the benefits of the slower human mind, too. While GPS will remain an integral and invaluable part of air force and military operations – and society at large – convenience can all too easily become a crutch if it is relied on too heavily. ●

Defence & Security Systems International /

20 New Scientist 71

Ships were affected by possible GPS spoofing near the Russian port of Novorossiysk in June 2017.


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