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North Korea Jamming Incident; LightSquared Issue

September 14, 2011  - By

My mailbox is currently overflowing with comments and questions concerning rampant rumors that in the March 2011 time frame a U.S. military reconnaissance aircraft was forced to land during an annual major east Asian military exercise, known as Key Resolve, due to GPS jamming. The jamming reportedly took place along the northern portion of the 684-mile long Korean peninsula, with the jamming supposedly originating with the North Koreans. The jamming scenario should come as no surprise, but it is the emergency or forced landing due to loss of a GPS signal among other supposed “facts” with which I take issue.

The Rest of the Story

As a former USAF (United States Air Force) aviator, who spent literally thousands of hours in the cockpits and mission compartments of various and highly sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft, allow me to set the record straight on several important issues. First the reports that the plane was forced down or made an emergency landing due to loss of GPS are certainly inaccurate, an exaggeration, and a devious way to generate headlines. The journalist who initially reported the incident was simply seeking media attention and was unfortunately successful. The reconnaissance aircraft was not forced down by jamming or enemy interference but rather the aircraft commander took the most prudent action, both from a military and political vantage point, and it may well have saved lives.

Sordid Aviation and Military History

Lest we forget, historically civilian airliners have been harassed, intercepted and even shot down in this area of the world. Consider North Korea’s extreme and high-profile actions of late concerning the U.S and South Korean military as well as the civilian populace of South Korea are solely for the purpose of provoking a military response. Both the U.S. and South Korean military have shown remarkable restraint. This latest jamming incident is merely another in a long series of provocations by North Korea. Remember the North Koreans reportedly sank a South Korean military vessel recently, with all lives lost, because it was supposedly in North Korean waters. Authorities do not know, or have not said, for certain if the South Korean vessel experienced GPS jamming, but GPS readouts and coordinates have now become the defacto standard for proving or disproving the legitimacy of reported border incursions, whether by land, sea, or air.

To reiterate, the U.S. reconnaissance pilot took the prudent action once the GPS signal was reportedly jammed even though I can assure you the pilot (and crew if there were any) had numerous other means of navigation at their disposal. None of our reconnaissance aircraft depend solely on GPS for PNT information.

Unlike so many of the critical, uninformed responses I have read concerning this incident, I applaud the reconnaissance pilot for making the right decision. And since this was a reconnaissance aircraft, it is very possible the military gained all the necessary data before deciding to terminate the mission. Suffice it to say our SIGINT (SIGnals INTelligence) tools are extremely sophisticated.

Are We Too Dependent on GPS?

This incident reminds me that the 19th USAF Chief of Staff, General Norton A. Schwartz, provoked quite a furor just 20 months ago when he spoke of a troubling operational dependency on GPS that must be tempered by other technologies and capabilites lest we become too dependent on one technology that could be denied our warfighters at critical times. It was reported at the time, by yours truly in GPS World and others, that General Schwartz’s call for alternative or augmenting technologies was “driven by serious threats to GPS… Officials familiar with the issue would not discuss current threats; however, they confirmed the GPS has been jammed or interfered with recently.”

Course of Action

The correct course of action is not to limit GPS — just the opposite. Refine GPS; increase the overall signal strength and accuracy for all users by integrating GPS with other embedded PNT (Position, Navigation and Timing) and communications systems through the use of intelligent software-defined receivers capable of utilizing all PNT signals available.

The dynamic Perfect Handheld or embedded GPS Transceiver (PHGPST) that I originally wrote about in March 2007 has evolved. The PHGPST must now be capable of receiving PNT signals from GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, Compass, among others. It must be capable of receiving all the wide area and local area augmentation systems available globally, such as DGPS (Differential GPS), WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System), and EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service), just to name a few. Such a system would also utilize a chip-scale atomic clock (CSAC) and ingenious commercial systems such as Skyhook Wireless, which uses Wi-Fi and GPS carrier signals for immediate (under four seconds) PNT results, even indoors.

Of course, to provide any future PNT capabilities GPS and all other satellite-borne PNT systems must exist within the protected satellite navigation spectrum currently threatened by LightSquared and an apparently clueless FCC (Federal Communications Commission).


The current LightSquared debacle and the North Korean jamming incident certainly underscore the reasons for General Schwartz’s concerns. The fact that the U.S. military has recently decommissioned one of the primary and historically viable backups and augmentations for GPS, that was essentially too powerful to be easily jammed — and I am speaking of course of eLORAN — is another matter for another column. In my opinion, and it is an opinion shared by many in the know, decommissioning eLORAN was a major operational blunder induced by minor budget concerns that both the current administration and the Coast Guard need to remedy. I would very much appreciate your comments, pro and con, on the eLORAN debate. This is far from a dead issue. Drop me a line at I digress.

Historical Viewpoint: Lessons Learned

The entire incident with the North Korean’s supposedly jamming GPS and General Schwartz’s comments regarding our dependency on GPS brings to light navigation concerns, actions, and lessons we should have learned from another well-known general officer who served as the fifth chief of staff of the USAF and as the commander of Strategic Air Command (SAC). I am speaking of the famous General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay who had a well-known aberration for navigation devices that were not passive in nature or integral to the aircraft being navigated. And even though he was primarily a command pilot, General LeMay understood navigation; in 1940 he served as the navigator on the prototype Boeing XB-15 heavy bomber that when it first flew, in 1938, was the most massive and most voluminous aircraft ever built in the United States. Late
r in his career as USAF CSAF (Chief of Staff) General LeMay strongly advocated the introduction of satellite technology for navigation and pushed for the development of the latest electronic warfare techniques. However, for General “Iron Pants” (the XB-15 could fly unrefueled for over 20 hours) LeMay new technology was never allowed to overshadow or jeopardize the primary mission.

General LeMay was a big believer in the basics, especially celestial navigation, and I can testify from personal experience that just a few years past, long after the advent of GPS and LORAN (LOng RAnge Navigation), SAC navigators and crews routinely flew vast distances across oceans and continents with nothing but a sextant and a very busy and nervous navigator. General LeMay was also concerned about SIGINT and required SAC aircraft to routinely practice radio and signals silence, no signal emissions. Entire missions were frequently flown from takeoff to landing without a single radio call or signal being transmitted. There were totally radio silent air refuelings by SAC tankers and bombers. Consider that celestial, inertial, eLORAN, and GPS fall into the silent and SIGINT free category. The inveterate cigar chomping and garrulous General LeMay would undoubtedly have approved and championed these new technologies. But he would never have allowed the loss of one capability to compromise the overall mission, and thankfully that same attitude is still prevalent in our Air Force today. Hence the timely comments by General Schwartz.

Today SAC’s assets (SAC was disestablished as a USAF Major Command — MAJCOM — in June 1992 after the end of the Cold War) are divided among Air Combat Command (ACC), Air Mobility Command (AMC), and Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). To my knowledge none of these MAJCOMs today require crews to carry sextants onboard their aircraft, and indeed many of the newer aircraft do not have sextant ports. Apparently manual aviation celestial navigation skills are no longer taught at the joint military navigation courses except to Navy and Coast Guard shipboard navigators/personnel. Perhaps a back-to-basics approach is needed in training as well as in operations.

LightSquared Debacle

While we should not be surprised that GPS jamming takes place, we should be surprised and indignant that the current FCC commissioner has initially authorized legal GPS jamming by LightSquared. I originally penned three articles about the FCC and the ridiculous chain of events that led to the LightSquared debacle, and then circumstances precluded me writing any further articles on the topic. What I can say now is the LightSquared terrestrial transmitters and receivers, if approved by the FCC, amount to FCC-sanctioned jamming that will cause mayhem among GPS users worldwide. This is no longer an issue confined to the CONUS (Continental United States). There are billions of dollars in economic and containment costs at stake as well as lost income and revenue, not to mention the potential loss of life, detailed in a recent FAA report. Approval of the LightSquared terrestrial plan would be a global catastrophe and I am incredulous that the administration and the FCC are still unsure of what action to take.

Way Ahead

It is really rather simple: LightSquared originally signed on to provide broadband communication capabilities via satellite to everyone in the U.S. They propose broadcasting in the spectrum allocated to satellite transmissions, and as long as they fulfill that mission at the nominal satellite power levels from orbit there is not an issue. In this originally approved LightSquared scenario, all users would have the capability to receive broadband signals everywhere they can now receive a GPS signal. As we all know, with ever more sensitive receivers you can now routinely receive GPS signals almost everywhere, even indoors. The proposed broadband satellite coverage area provides a huge customer base for LightSquared but apparently it is not enough. It becomes a matter of market dominance versus market share. The FCC needs to wake up and take immediate actions to curtail plans for all high-powered terrestrial transmissions in the protected satellite spectrum or face the disastrous consequences. The North Korean jamming headlines are bad enough; none of us want to read a headline that says “FCC GPS Actions Cause Huge Loss of Life as Airliners Collide.” This is far from over; write your Congressman.

Until next time, happy navigating.

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About the Author:

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.

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