Expert Advice: Soldiers and Civilian GPS: Dangerous (and Deadly?) Expediency

April 1, 2012  - By


Headshot: Jules McNeff

Headshot: Jules McNeff

By Jules McNeff

An old adage says, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.” That is particularly relevant in today’s world of GPS and the positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) dependencies it has created. In business, it’s all about location, and in military circles, something called real-time situational awareness, driven by the ready availability of PNT from GPS. However, it has been reported (and validated by experience) that U.S. soldiers believe that the GPS equipment they are issued through official channels is too big, too heavy, uses too many batteries, and is old-looking and not sexy like the multi-color, multi-app personal electronics and smart phones they are accustomed to at home.

Furthermore, they reportedly feel encumbered by Department of Defense (DoD) policies that require the use of encrypted military GPS signals when executing combat mission command-and-control or performing combat-related actions such as synchronizing tactical networks, designating targets, and calling for fire support when in contact with an adversary force. They wish they could just use their iPhone, or iPad, or similar smart device with its integral location-based apps and ready communication capabilities, and not have to deal with what many see as obsolescent gear and antiquated policies. Unfortunately, were that wish to really come true across the joint force and mission domain, it could have disastrous and deadly consequences.

This is not intended to be a defense of the DoD requirements and acquisition processes, for there is much that could be improved within both. Adherence to those processes in the procurement of PNT equipment means that it will take longer to develop and produce the equipment than comparable commercial units, and that the equipment will probably be heavier and less user-friendly than commercial products.

However, those processes exist and are rigorously followed, first because they are required by statute, but also for practical reasons of justifying investments of taxpayer resources and ensuring as much as possible that whatever is procured will withstand the rigors of service in its intended military application. For GPS equipment, this includes not only the rigors of the physical environment but also those of the electronic environment, including threats of both unintentional and hostile interference and signal imitation. It is precisely that threat environment that presents the greatest danger to reliance on commercial GPS products in military applications.

The U.S. military and coalition forces have been fortunate from a PNT perspective over the last couple of decades in facing relatively unsophisticated adversaries with either limited access to or limited desire to routinely employ PNT countermeasure technology. Consequently, we have seemingly become complacent to the risks posed by overreliance on commercial-derivative PNT products. This complacency is apparent in the recent reporting from the Army’s forward-leaning Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) program, in which the Army assesses leading-edge commercial technologies and identifies those with great promise in order to fast-track them into operation, bypassing as much as possible the aforementioned DoD requirements and acquisition processes. 

At the same time, the Army gives a wink and a nod to the GPS security policies requiring use of encrypted military GPS signals for combat operations. It is a virtual certainty that if GPS drives the location-based applications in the commercial-derivative technologies evaluated by NIE, those applications are all powered by civilian GPS and not the encrypted military GPS. As noted, civilian GPS is frequently seen by those not thoroughly familiar with PNT technology as the cheap, expedient choice because more secure or integrated PNT sources are too expensive, too heavy, too much bother, and so on. 

It is also apparent, though not confirmed, that during NIE field testing, the opposing force toolkit does not include navigation warfare (NAVWAR) techniques for GPS jamming and spoofing. If it did, and if the test scenarios included active GPS jamming and spoofing, then the commercial location-based apps with civilian GPS as their input would not work or would derive erroneous solutions. In that case, the Army might have to reconsider its rapid deployment decisions for these vitally important devices. Clearly, it is not doing that.

The highly touted Rifleman Radio, advertised by the Army as a success, uses civilian GPS as its source of PNT information. The Army is planning to deploy tens of thousands of these radios for operational use over the next several years. While soldiers may be told or even admonished not to use the position and timing solutions derived from these radios for other than situational awareness — in other words, not to use them for direct combat or combat-support tasks — the likelihood of that policy being followed in the real world is nil. Either of necessity or for convenience, soldiers will use what is made available to them for whatever purposes they deem appropriate. That will be true whether the commercial-derivative PNT solution is in a smartphone or a Rifleman Radio. 

For the near term, that may not be a problem. However, at some point, in a contested environment against a knowledgeable adversary, mission effectiveness will be compromised and soldiers’ lives will be endangered by such devices. Further, proliferation of these devices will constrain our own commanders in their ability to employ offensive NAVWAR techniques that might be necessary to disrupt adversary use of open civilian GPS signals against our forces in the combat theater.

These statements are not mere speculation. The vulnerability of civilian GPS signals to unintentional interference and intentional jamming is well known. Reports of personal privacy devices interfering with reception of civilian GPS signals at Newark Airport provide a recent example (see “Personal Privacy Jammers,” page 28 in this issue). What is less well understood, but even more sinister in a combat environment, is civil GPS susceptibility to spoofing: the intentional creation of false, but believable, signals. 

In a recent interview with Fox News, Todd Humphreys, a well-regarded GPS researcher from the University of Texas, stated, “The civil GPS signal is completely open and vulnerable to a spoofing attack, because they have no authentication and no encryption. It’s almost trivial to mimic those signals to imitate them and fool a GPS receiver into tracking your signals instead of the authentic ones.” In a combat environment, such deception could result in mission failure or loss of life through loss of command-and-control communications in high tempo lethal actions, erroneous target designations, or misdirected fires.

All those who recommend providing soldiers in combat situations with PNT capabilities derived from civilian GPS, whether via smart phone, iPad, or Rifleman Radio, in lieu of or even in addition to their less convenient but more reliable military GPS devices, should reconsider that recommendation in light of the above. 

There is no argument to the statement that the DoD owes the warfighter more modern, integrated, compact, battery-efficient PNT devices incorporating military GPS. Those will come through the acquisition process, though not as fast as we all would like. In reality, a proliferation of civil PNT devices in military operations will likely delay further the availability of more suitable integrated military equipment. 

In the meantime, we should not be misled because of our experience in today’s war. Instead, we must plan for future actions in anti-access/area denial situations against knowledgeable adversaries. We cannot afford to undermine the warfighters’ cause in advance by advocating reliance on vulnerable and exploitable commercial GPS equipment that can get them killed.

Jules McNeff is vice president for strategy and programs for Overlook Systems Technologies. He served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, and then was responsible for Defense Department management and oversight of the GPS program. He is a charter member of GPS World’s Editorial Advisory Board.

This article is tagged with , , , and posted in Defense, Opinions