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Beyond the frontlines: The far-reaching effects of electronic warfare

November 28, 2023  - By
Image: guvendemir/ E+/Getty Images

Image: guvendemir/ E+/Getty Images

Electronic warfare in the Middle East and Ukraine is affecting air travel far beyond the battlefields, unnerving pilots and revealing unintended consequences of a tactic that experts believe will become more widespread, reported The New York Times 

Planes are losing satellite signals, flights have been diverted and pilots have received false location reports or inaccurate warnings that they were flying close to terrain, according to European Union safety regulators and an internal airline memo viewed by The New York Times. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also warned pilots about GPS jamming in the Middle East. 

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, radio frequency interference only continues to increase across the Middle East as of autumn 2023. These interferences can involve jamming GNSS signals to obstruct or block them using noise, or mimicking signals to trick GNSS receivers into picking up counterfeit satellite signals, known as spoofing.  

Aircraft systems have been unable to detect GPS spoofing and ultimately correct for it. According to Opsgroup, an organization that monitors changes and risks in the aviation industry, one Embraer jet bound for Dubai nearly veered into Iranian airspace in September before the pilots figured out the plane was chasing a false signal. 

“We only realized there was an issue because the autopilot started turning to the left and right, so it was obvious that something was wrong,” crew members reported to Opsgroup. 

Issues arise 

With the rise of electronic warfare, the strain on aviation could be a sign of more serious economic and security issues.  

The U.S. government calls GNSS signals “an invisible utility.” Smartphones, cars, stock exchanges, data centers and countless industries rely on them for time, navigation or both. Similar systems exist around the world, such as Galileo in Europe, Glonass in Russia, QZSS in Japan, NavIC in India and BeiDou in China. One study from Britain said a five-day disruption of satellite signals could cost the country $6.3 billion. 

Minor interference with GPS signals is fairly common. GPS jamming devices, while illegal to use, are inexpensive and easy to obtain from vendors on the internet. Governments, too, have been more willing to overtly interfere with signals as a tactic in electronic warfare. 

It is not always possible to distinguish jamming from spoofing, or to determine who is behind the interference. Israel said in mid-October it had restricted GPS in the region and had warned pilots not to rely on satellite navigation systems for landing.  

Russian interference is well-documented. A 2019 report by the Washington-based analytical nonprofit group C4ADS showed extensive spoofing from a Russian-controlled air base in Syria. Reports also indicated that, when Russian President, Vladimir Putin, traveled to remote locations or Russian-occupied Crimea, he was flanked by mobile GPS-spoofing technology. 

Russia has disrupted GPS signals to misdirect Ukrainian UAVs and throw precision-guided shells off their targets. Ukraine also jams Russian receivers but lacks the same level of sophistication 

Jamming is common in conflict zones. Spoofing, until recently, was considered rare.   

The interference has been felt up to 190 miles away from battlefields and “appears to go well beyond simple military mission effectiveness,” according to Eurocontrol, Europe’s primary air-traffic-control manager. The worst-affected regions include the aerial space above the Black Sea area from Turkey to Azerbaijan; the Mediterranean Sea extending from Cyprus to Libya; the Baltic Sea near Poland and Latvia; and the Arctic near Finland and Norway. 

Airbus said it recorded nearly 50,000 interference events on its aircraft last year, more than four times as many as the year before. This came on top of an over twentyfold jump in radio-interference events from 2017 to 2018, as recorded by a voluntary incident reporting system run by Eurocontrol. Eurocontrol said the increased jamming since 2018 was most likely meant to interfere with battlefield UAVs. 

In the Middle East, there have been reports of false signals telling pilots their aircraft were directly above the airport in Tel Aviv despite being far away. Opsgroup said it had received around 50 similar reports. In some cases, onboard equipment showed that planes were approaching airports in Baghdad, Cairo or Beirut, Lebanon, when they were not. 

Looking ahead 

Spoofing is hard to distinguish because the signal appears legitimate. Only Europe’s Galileo incorporates an authentication system that can verify when a signal is from its satellites. Galileo, which currently is the most accurate and precise navigation satellite system, plans to introduce an even stronger level of authentication, according to the European Commission. 

But even Galileo’s authentication cannot protect against one of the most dreaded types of spoofing, known as “meaconing.” In a meaconing attack, a spoofer would record satellite signals, and then rebroadcast them with an amplification or a delay. Experts have not publicly confirmed any meaconing attacks in the Middle East. 

Opsgroup said the latest events should prompt manufacturers to re-examine the integration of satellite signals in aircraft electronics, known as avionics, without a safeguard that can identify false signals.

In this environment of intentional GPS jamming and spoofing, Israel has produced a leading anti-jam technology company, InfiniDome, located in Caesarea. According to co-founder Omer Sharar, the company has been working to defend GPS signals for more than seven years and has also seen the rise of devices to jam the GPS L1 frequency that anyone can buy online for $100.   

Gpsdome-1 (left) protects GPS L1. GPSdome-2 (right) protects GPS L1/L2 or GPS L1/GLONASS L1.

Gpsdome-1 (left) protects GPS L1. GPSdome-2 (right) protects GPS L1/L2 or GPS L1/GLONASS L1. (Image: InfiniDome)

Most readily available jammer electronics only output interference disrupting GPS L1, which is commonly installed for vehicle tracking and UAV guidance. InfiniDome says it has successfully protected trucking, UAV operations and others in Israel and around the world with its Infinidome GPSdome-1 and GPSdome-2 anti-jam products. 

It is clear the conflict’s repercussions extend well beyond the battlefield, highlighting the critical need for security assessments or alternative PNT systems to protect civilians. While there is going to be a significant impact on commercial airline travel to and from Israel while hostilities continue, there is hope for a possible long-term solution for the intense jamming that has plagued the region for years.