April 13, 2024

As Space Threats Rise, US Lags in Protecting GPS Services

The United States and China are involved in a new race, in space and on Earth, for a fundamental resource: time itself.

And the United States is losing.

Global positioning satellites function like clocks in the sky, and their signals have become central to the global economy – as essential to telecommunications, 911 services and financial exchanges as they are to lost drivers and pedestrians.

But these services are increasingly vulnerable as space is rapidly militarized and satellite signals are attacked on Earth.

However, unlike China, the United States does not have a Plan B for civilians in case these signals are disrupted in space or on land.

The risks can seem as remote as science fiction. But just last month, the United States stated that Russia could send a nuclear weapon into space, refocusing attention on the vulnerability of satellites. And John E. Hyten, an Air Force general who also served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and who is now retired, once called some satellites “big, fat, juicy targets.”

Tangible threats have been growing for years.

Russia, China, India and the United States have tested anti-satellite missiles, and several major world powers have developed technology aimed at disrupting signals in space. A Chinese satellite has a robotic arm that can destroy or move other satellites.

Other attacks are taking place on Earth. Russian hackers targeted the ground infrastructure of a satellite system in Ukraine, cutting off the Internet at the start of the war in that country. Attacks such as jamming, which muffles satellite signals, and spoofing, which sends misleading data, are on the rise, diverting flights and confusing pilots far from the battlefield.

If the world were to lose connection to these satellites, economic losses would amount to billions of dollars per day.

Despite acknowledging the risks, the United States is still years away from having a reliable alternative source of weather and navigation for civilian use if GPS signals fail or are interrupted, documents show and experts say. The Department of Transport, which leads civilian timekeeping and navigation projects, disputed this but did not provide answers to follow-up questions.

A 2010 Obama administration plan that experts hoped would create a backup for satellites never got off the ground. A decade later, President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order that said disrupting or manipulating satellite signals posed a threat to national security. But it did not suggest an alternative or propose funding to protect infrastructure.

The Biden administration is soliciting proposals from private companies, hoping they will offer technical solutions. But it could be years before these technologies are widely adopted.

Where the United States lags behind, China is moving forward, building what it claims is the largest, most advanced and most accurate timekeeping system in the world.

It is building hundreds of timing stations on land and installing 19,000 kilometers of fiber optic cable underground, according to planning documents, state media and academic articles. This infrastructure can provide weather and navigation services without relying on signals from Beidou, the Chinese alternative to GPS. It also plans to launch more satellites as backup signal sources.

“We must seize this strategic opportunity, putting all our efforts into building capabilities that cover all domains – underwater, on the ground, in the air, in space and in deep space – as quickly as possible”, said researchers from the Center for Science and China’s Aerospace Industry. Corporation, a state-owned conglomerate, wrote in an article last year.

China has maintained and updated a World War II-era system known as Loran that uses radio towers to transmit timing signals over long distances. An improved version provides signals for the eastern and central parts of the country, extending offshore to Taiwan and parts of Japan. Construction is underway to expand the system westward.

Russia also has a long-range Loran system that remains in use. South Korea has updated its system to combat radio interference from North Korea.

The United States, however, decommissioned its Loran system in 2010, with President Barack Obama calling it “obsolete technology”. There was no plan to replace it.

In January, the government and private companies tested an improved version of Loran in U.S. Coast Guard towers. But the companies have shown no interest in running the system without government help, so the Coast Guard plans to eliminate all eight transmission sites.

“The Chinese did what we in America said we would do,” said Dana Goward, president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation in Virginia. “They are definitely on the path to being space independent.”

Since Trump’s executive order, about a dozen companies have proposed options, including launching new satellites, installing fiber-optic timing systems or restarting an improved version of Loran. But few products reached the market.

A private company, Satelles, working with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado, developed an alternative time source using satellites already orbiting about 485 miles above Earth.

NIST scientists say the signals are a thousand times stronger than those from GPS satellites, which orbit more than 12,000 miles above Earth. This makes them more difficult to block or spoof. And because low-Earth orbit satellites are smaller and more dispersed, they are less vulnerable than GPS satellites to an attack in space.

The satellites obtain the time from stations around the world, including NIST facilities in Colorado and an Italian research center outside Milan, according to Satelles chief executive Michael O’Connor.

China has similar plans to upgrade its space-time system by 2035. It will launch satellites to augment the Beidou system, and the country plans to launch about 13,000 satellites into low Earth orbit.

China says its investments are partly motivated by concerns about an American attack in space. Researchers from China’s Academy of Military Sciences said the United States is “making every effort” to develop its space cyber warfare capabilities, especially after the war in Ukraine brought “a deeper appreciation of the critical nature of space cyber security.” .

The United States has increased its spending on space defense, but the Space Force, a branch of the military, did not respond to specific questions about the country’s anti-satellite capabilities. It stated that it was building systems to protect the nation’s interests as “space becomes an increasingly congested and contested domain.”

Separate from civilian use, the military is developing GPS backup options for its own use, including for weapons such as precision-guided missiles. Most technologies are classified, but one solution is a signal called M-code, which the Space Force says resists jamming and performs better in warfare than civilian GPS. However, it was plagued by repeated delays.

The military is also developing a positioning, timing and navigation service to be distributed by satellites in low Earth orbit.

Other countermeasures look to the past. The US Naval Academy has once again taught sailors how to navigate by the stars.

Satellite systems – the US GPS, China’s Beidou, Europe’s Galileo and Russia’s Glonass – are the important sources of time, and time is the cornerstone of most navigation methods.

In the American GPS system, for example, each satellite carries atomic clocks and transmits radio signals with information about its location and the precise time. When a cell phone receiver picks up signals from four satellites, it calculates its own location based on the time it took for those signals to arrive.

Cars, ships and navigation systems on board aircraft operate in the same way.

Other infrastructure also depends on satellites. Telecommunications companies use precise timing to synchronize their networks. Energy companies need satellite time to monitor the status of the grid and to quickly identify and investigate faults. Financial exchanges use it to track applications. Emergency services use it to locate people in need. Farmers use it to plant with precision.

A world without satellite signals is an almost blind world. Ambulances will be delayed on perpetually congested roads. Cell phone calls will drop. Ships can get lost. Power outages may last longer. Food may cost more. It will be much more difficult to get around.

However, some critical civilian systems were designed with the mistaken assumption that satellite signals would always be available, according to the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

This trust can have dire consequences. A recent report from Britain showed that a week-long outage of all satellite signals would cost its economy nearly $9.7 billion. A previous report estimated the impact on the US economy at $1 billion per day, but that estimate is five years old.

“It’s like oxygen, you don’t know you have it until it’s gone,” said Adm. Thad W. Allen, a former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard who leads a national advisory board for space-based positioning, navigation and timing. said last year.

For now, mutually guaranteed losses deter major attacks. Satellite signals are transmitted in a narrow radio band, which makes it difficult for one nation to block another’s satellite signals without shutting down its own services.

Having free GPS for 50 years has “got everyone hooked”, according to Mr Goward of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. The government has not done enough to make alternatives available to the public, he said.

“It’s just admiring the problem,” he said, “not solving the problem.”

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