Ever since the first Global Positioning System satellite was launched in 1978, the technology has become a game-changing force that America — and much of the world — relies upon. Much of our nation’s critical infrastructure, including major communications networks, banking systems, financial markets and power grids, all depend on GPS to function properly.
By some estimates, it is responsible for over $3 trillion a year in savings and increased national productivity in the United States alone.
Despite the incredible capabilities GPS provides for users around the world, it also represents a critical vulnerability. GPS signals are fairly weak, and its civilian signals can easily be disrupted by various forms of natural or man-made interference. Our deep reliance on GPS, combined with its vulnerability, has led officials at the Department of Homeland Security to call the technology “a single point of failure for critical infrastructure.” It’s the reason Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has said he wants to “unplug the military from GPS,” and why so much research has gone into non-satellite-based navigation and timing systems.
There is broad consensus that we need to establish a system to complement and back up GPS. President George W. Bush mandated acquisition of a backup system in 2004, and President Barack Obama reaffirmed that order when he took office in 2009. Specifically, the National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT EXCOM), chaired by the Departments of Defense and Transportation, has identified a system known as enhanced Loran, or eLoran, as a viable nationwide complement and backup for GPS within the continental United States. eLoran, which uses the legacy Loran-C infrastructure, provides positioning, navigation and timing capabilities that are comparable to GPS, but with a considerably more powerful signal than the system. This dramatically enhances its resilience in the face of jamming or other attempts at disruption. It would only take four towers and about $40 million to stand up the initial complementary timing capability, with room for expansion to provide additional positioning and navigation capabilities.
In spite of its relatively low cost and technical maturity, America’s eLoran system has yet to be built, and we have fallen behind much of the world in this critical security infrastructure. While Russia, China, Iran, South Korea, the United Kingdom and others are maintaining and upgrading their own terrestrial GPS backup systems, branches of the U.S. federal government continue to point fingers when it comes to taking responsibility for eLoran. The relevant federal departments have all agreed that the system is needed, but none have stepped forward to make it a reality.
That is why the House recently passed, and the Senate is considering, legislation that includes a bill I coauthored to designate the Coast Guard as the lead agency for this effort and set deadlines for the system’s implementation. The Coast Guard has experience with such systems and owns the infrastructure upon which eLoran will be built. It is also uniquely suited for this responsibility because it has strong authorities and relationships as a military service, within the civil sector and as a member of the intelligence community.
While a domestic eLoran network would not fulfill all Defense Department requirements, especially during expeditionary operations, this system would still provide substantial benefits to the military services.
Having a terrestrial GPS backup would ensure continuity of operations. I have no doubt that most of our combat systems would be able to operate for a certain amount of time in a GPS-denied environment, albeit less effectively. However, I am equally sure that the contractors and suppliers upon which the department and our military depend so heavily are not as well protected, and would be seriously impacted by a GPS outage. Every mode of transportation would slow down and become more accident prone. As backup clocks de-synchronize, telecommunications, financial and information technology networks would begin to degrade and fail. The Defense Department’s vast commercial support infrastructure would be crippled. This would make it very difficult for the department to train, maintain and equip at home, or to support operations abroad.
It could also assist first responders. The National Guard is America’s largest group of first responders. All first responders depend upon GPS to rapidly navigate to the scene of an emergency and, in larger incidents, for situational awareness, coordination of forces and a myriad of command and control functions. The GPS timing signal is also vital for communications systems.
Recent events have highlighted how much these systems rely on having a reliable signal. In January 2016, a software glitch caused half of our GPS satellites to begin transmitting a slightly erroneous timing signal, leading to numerous faulty reports from first responder and public service radio systems across North America. Though operators were able to mitigate the effects in this instance, it serves as a warning of what could happen should a more serious disruption occur. Having a backup system would allow the affected equipment to seamlessly switch to the more reliable signal, reducing the effects of the disruption.
Meanwhile, the department has told Congress that it is spending $5 billion over five years to protect national security space assets like GPS. Spending $40 million to stand up a domestic eLoran system would provide a cost-effective method to enhance these efforts by preserving a critical capability in the event of an attack on our space assets. A backup system would reduce the incentive to carry out such an attack, dramatically reducing the impact it would have on America’s well-being and resilience.
The federal government has spent enough time studying the problem, and it’s time to take action on the most obvious solution. A domestic eLoran system, developed through the combined efforts of both the public and private sector, including DoD, will help us address a critical security vulnerability, protect our interests and assets and make Americans safer. NDCongressman John Garamendi, D-Calif., serves on the Armed Services and Transportation & Infrastructure committees of the U.S. House of Representatives.