Earlier this year, a Presidential Advisory Board recommended that the Biden administration celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of approval of the Global Positioning System as an official government program. Such a celebration should highlight the program’s achievements and its many contributions to the world.
At the same time the National Space-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board warned “GPS’s capabilities are now substantially inferior to those of China’s BeiDou.” It urged the government to use the event to launch “…an initiative to regain U.S. PNT [positioning, navigation, and timing] leadership and ensure resilient, reliable PNT for critical infrastructure and the larger economy.”
Reinforcing its message, the board recently posted a white paper “Celebrating the GPS 50th Anniversary: Recommitting to U.S. Leadership in PNT.”
The paper cites many of the critical technologies GPS underpins and calls it “an essential yet silent utility.” Among the benefits mentioned are revolutions in agriculture, transportation, and telecommunications, along with vast improvements in areas as diverse as financial services, construction, and electrical grid operations. GPS has created new businesses such as Uber and Lyft and transformed American society for the better.
At the same time, the white paper warns, “GPS’ contributions to America’s global leadership and economic prosperity have not gone unnoticed by our allies and adversaries.”
The role of GPS and PNT in “Great Power Competition” is significant, according to the board.
Europe, Russia and China have all deployed their own satellite navigation systems as a way to protect their national security and reinforce their positions as world powers.
Europe offers use of its system to other nations as a civilian supplement to America’s military-operated GPS.
China aggressively markets its BeiDou satellite navigation system as newer and, in many locations, more accurate alternative or replacement for GPS. A recent Harvard paper documented how China is using it as an integral part of its “Belt and Road” and “Digital Silk Road” efforts to expand its soft power around the world.
Both China and Russia also recognize GPS’ and PNT’s role in “hard power.”
China has regularly jammed GPS signals in the South China Sea as part of its illegal extraterritorial claims around the Spratly Islands. And it has regularly spoofed, or sent false GPS signals, to conceal the real locations of ships. This was most likely in an effort to avoid sanctions for importing Iranian oil.
Russian forces in Ukraine regularly jam GPS signals to degrade the effectiveness of US-provided precision weapons and defeat drone attacks. And just before the war began Russia destroyed a retired satellite boasting it could “shoot down all 32 GPS satellites and blind NATO.” A threat taken seriously by the White House, according to a National Security Council official who described GPS as “a single point of failure” for the nation.
Observers have questioned what impact this threat has had on America’s response to the invasion and on-going conflict.
China’s and Russia’s threats to GPS are particularly of concern because both those nations have national terrestrial alternatives to GPS and GPS-like systems while the U.S. does not. Thus, if either nation were to seriously disrupt GPS, the U.S. would not be able to achieve the same impact by responding in kind. This disparity between capabilities is seen by some analysts as ripe for exploitation, something that could lead to an escalating series of responses and a shooting war.
To address these challenges the Advisory Board recommends the administration “…convene a White House summit celebrating U.S. achievements with GPS and launch new era of innovation and prosperity.” The event should have three goals, it says.
First, to raise public “…awareness of GPS’ contributions and importance to America and the world.” While most people understand that GPS is based on satellites and helps them navigate, few, including policy makers, understand the key role it plays in supporting virtually all technologies and critical infrastructures.
The summit should also lead to improvements in the way GPS and PNT efforts are led within the government with appointment of “…a senior responsible official.” Leadership is currently vested in a very senior cross-department committee that advises the Executive Office of the President. The committee rarely meets, and its senior co-chairs have not participated in decades. Observers have often commented that a critical national capability like GPS and PNT must have focused, day-to-day senior leadership.
Finally, the board says, the summit should “Lead to implementation of a systems approach to a resilient national PNT architecture to underpin national security and economic prosperity.”
This, experts say, would involve establishment of services that worked with GPS and provided similar information, but from different sources and by different methods. Time signals from the National Institute of Standards and Technology could be delivered by fiber and terrestrial broadcast, for example. Navigation information to complement GPS could be provided by terrestrial broadcasts. Satellites orbiting closer to the earth and less susceptible to interference than GPS could also be part of the solution.
None of these technologies are new, and all are relatively inexpensive. The only thing needed, according to many experts, is government focus and leadership.
The alternative is for the U.S. to continue falling behind China and others in area in which it has led the world for over fifty years. This would also perpetuate significant risks to national and economic security.
The administration has not yet responded to the Advisory Board’s January recommendation, nor its May white paper. Sources say a response is being coordinated and should be available before the board meets again in December.
Mr. Dana A. Goward is President of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, and is a member of the President’s National Space-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board