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GPS and GNSS: confronting dual-use realities

September 28, 2020  - By
Headshot: Jules McNeff

Jules McNeff, vice president, strategy & programs, Overlook Systems Technologies

I welcome the opportunity to contribute and congratulate GPS World on your 30th anniversary. Over those 30 years, I have watched GPS influence how the world works. Early on, along with its vital contributions to U.S. and allied military operations, there was great optimism that sharing civil GPS technology openly would bring improved safety and efficiency to people around the world. However, that sense of optimism has dimmed as GPS, and the GNSS construct and PNT enterprise that it spawned, confront evolving real-world events.

Several years ago, I wrote a paper positing that in terms of dual-use utility and risks, GPS and related PNT capabilities are analogous to two other technology innovations that have occurred since the Second World War: atomic energy and the internet. The paper considered GPS/PNT in the context of each, reflecting our experiences with those two dual-use extremes.

The paper concluded that, unlike atomic energy, which has been fairly well controlled, GPS/PNT more closely resembles the internet, which has for better or worse been allowed to grow into a global capability virtually without constraint. For GPS/PNT, a fixation on civil, commercial and scientific uses enabled civil authorities uncomfortable with the military side of the dual-use equation to ignore that reality and focus only on “peaceful” civil and scientific endeavors. Unfortunately, the international comity that participants had hoped for, and that appeared for a time to be real, can no longer be assured.

Where the U.S. has been open and transparent regarding a dual-use GPS, others have not. Now, the open sharing of information that has been the hallmark of the civil GNSS community over the years must be viewed seriously and candidly through the clear lens afforded by the overt actions of GNSS providers.

Collective efforts to improve GNSS for peaceful uses ignore the reality that the information shared can equally and dangerously undermine international security. As with the internet, those who have become dependent on precise GPS/PNT services must now reactively create protections and remediations to deal with increasingly real threats from those we had considered colleagues.

So, naivete and optimism must finally yield in the face of hard reality.