PNTAB and eLoran in the People’s Republic

November 11, 2015  - By
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That is, in the People’s Republic of Boulder, Colorado. To those of us who live in Colorado, Boulder is known by this seemingly timeless but absolutely accurate appellation. This stunningly beautiful city located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, known as the Flatirons, is where the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Advisory Board (PNTAB), which provides independent advice to the National Executive Committee on Space-Based PNT (EXCOM) from outside the U.S. government, chose to meet in the waning days of October 2015. Ironically, they chose the same week as a Republican presidential candidates debate, which took place at the University of Colorado just a couple of miles away. The PNTAB was also concomitant with the ICG, the Tenth Meeting of the International Committee on GNSS (ICG-10), held Nov. 2-5, 2015. Both the PNTAB and ICG were held at the Boulder NCAR/UCAR facility, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research Center Green Conference facility.

PNTAB

The PNTAB serves a vital purpose. Board memberse advise the highest levels of the U.S. government (USG) concerning all matters relating to PNT. This open-ended charter covers a multitude of sins, and as the new PNTAB Chairman John Stenbit, stated clearly, it is important to focus on the doable, even if it seems difficult, but not to tilt at windmills. I have known and worked with John Stenbit for more than 25 years, especially during his two stints in the Pentagon, and I find him to be extremely knowledgeable and ethical. He is certainly well-spoken and gregarious, but he does not suffer fools, and is known to be resolute, which is a pseudonym for stubborn and hardheaded, but in a good way. I look forward to his chairmanship.

PNTAB Members at 16th Meeting in Boulder. New Chairman John Stenbit is center of last row. (Courtesy of gps.gov)

PNTAB Members at 16th Meeting in Boulder. New Chairman John Stenbit is center of last row. (Courtesy of gps.gov)

You can view the PNTAB presentations at the www.gps.gov website. While there, you will note there were more than 25 presentations, and most were excellent. Only a couple required the audience to consume copious amounts of caffeine to remain coherent.

In the end, the PNTAB adopted courses of action (COA) on which to formulate recommendations for the EXCOM. For our purposes, the pertinent COAs centered around two main subject areas: Spectrum protection and eLoran. The spectrum protection issues are fraught with equal parts litigious danger and tedium. Not coincidently, the World Radiocommunication Conference 2015 (WRC-15) kicked off in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 2, just two days after the end of the PNTAB. Several of the PNTAB members attended the closing Saturday night PNTAB dinner and flew from Denver direct to Geneva Sunday morning, just in time for some minor jet lag adjustments, and then attended the opening ceremonies of WRC 2015 in snowy Switzerland.

I have had the dubious privilege of observing several International Telecommunication Union (ITU)-sponsored WRC sessions in the past, and it is certainly a critical spectrum decision-making body. (Seriously, folks, 26 days of talking and wrangling about spectrum? Praise the Lord the Swiss know how to brew strong coffee.) WRC 2015 wraps up on Nov. 27. In this regard, Ann Ciganer, who serves as an official PNTAB representative and the executive director of policy for the GPS Innovation Alliance (GPSIA, formerly the U.S. GPS Industry Council), is my hero. She has been working spectrum issues for more than 20 years. She has the fortitude of FDR and the patience of Job.

Since the spectrum and spectrum-protection issues are still being coldly debated in Geneva, let’s take a look at the PNTAB’s second major topic, eLoran. While eLoran was discussed ad nauseam, there was one definitive standout presentation given by my old friend and colleague Professor David Last. David is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wales (Bangor) and former president of the Royal Institute of Navigation (RIN). As he is wont to do, David held forth, with that wonderful, attention-arresting British public school accent, on eLoran matters before an appreciative audience. David presented his topic with equal parts passion and credibility. You can view his presentation material in its entirety (the PowerPoint slides, anyway) at www.gps.gov, but you will not have the wonderful experience of having him present it personally with all the attendant persuasion, and dry British humor and wit.

eLoran European Style

David immediately makes the point early on in the historical portion of his presentation that the U.S. first committed to Loran-C more than 75 years ago, and as recently as 2010 upgraded a majority of the sites to eLoran status only to have the current administration shut down Loran just after officially assuring the United Kingdom the U.S. would keep Loran up and running. Now the U.S. is in the position of looking for a backup and major terrestrial augmentation to GPS (GNSS) and is once again considering eLoran.

Professor David Last at 16th PNTAB

Professor David Last at the 16th PNTAB meeting. (Photo: Don Jewell)

Professor David Last at the 16th PNTAB meeting. (Photo: Don Jewell)

Professor Last explained the difference between our viewpoints. “I see it from a British perspective, and a European perspective. I watch administrations in other parts of the world grappling with the same decisions the U.S. faces. The U.S., of course, is in a unique position: it is the source of GPS, the world standard in satellite navigation. And over the nearly 40 years since the first satellite was launched, the U.S. has taken the lead in learning to understand the role of GPS, from its military-only origins, through when it was a novelty with its first civil applications, through a period of hubris in which it was to replace every other means of navigation on land, sea and air, to its present role, so deeply embedded in your national life as to form a critical component of national infrastructure. The U.S. was first to recognize the vulnerabilities of GPS, to understand the threat they posed to your nation and to seek ways of mitigating them. That topic came to dominate technical conferences first in the U.S. and now around the world. And it has led to a policy debate of quite exceptional difficulty, one that is shared by all governments.”

The Message

What David did not come right out and say, although I maintain it was implied by his tone of voice and body language, is that this discussion is at times both energized and denigrated by those that refuse to acknowledge GPS or GNSS vulnerabilities and those that would be happy to see it revert to a military-only system — the proverbial ostrich syndrome. David made it clear that GPS vulnerability discussions must take place publicly in the U.S. because they are, in fact, global discussions. “All space-based PNT systems today are similar to GPS in concept and technology, and referred to by most users as GPS,” he said. “Very few bother or even know about Galileo, GLONASS and BeiDou. To them, it is all simply GPS.”

David went on to make his point by describing the ubiquity and pervasiveness of GPS and GNSS. “Now there is no area of transportation, commerce, industry or telecommunications in your country or mine that does not employ satellite navigation.”

Indeed, David described how other GNSS systems came about due to national pride, and yet they had no choice but to mimic GPS both technically and officially, since they must for safety-of-life concerns reside in the same regimes and crowded radio bands.

David stated, “Soon, these new GNSS became invested with immense national pride. Their vast cost had to be justified by claims of technical superiority. In reality, engineers know that their designers had no choice but to make them compatible with GPS, since GPS was decades ahead and the world standard. These new systems also had to squeeze alongside GPS in the narrow radio bands allocated internationally to navigation. Not surprisingly, indeed happily, all our new GNSS turned out to look very like GPS: versions of the same technology — with just a hint of garlic here, a whiff of curry there. This similarity is obvious to engineers and to navigators, though rarely to politicians.”

DOT Volpe GPS Jamming Report

Professor Last referred to the U.S. provider and user communities as groups that, prior to the important 2001 Volpe Report, failed to acknowledge that GPS had any serious vulnerabilities. That report was a watershed event for the future of GPS, and for me as a journalist. Among other jamming incidents around the country, a major jamming occurrence in San Diego harbor affected GPS-dependent systems (mostly those dependent on accurate timing) and users for miles around. It became a wakeup call for GPS and GNSS users globally; I wrote a Defense PNT column on it in this space in 2007.

David put it in perspective. “To understand the perceptions of those governments, wind back the U.S. story to before the Volpe Report on GPS vulnerability with its recommendations that led to your [PNT Advisory] Board’s policy of ‘Protect, Toughen, and Augment’. Despite the growth of jamming and even attacks by one sovereign nation on its neighbor, despite the appearance of low-cost spoofing, there has never been a Volpe Report anywhere outside the United States. The pre-Volpe culture of the denial of vulnerability is alive and well and living in Europe.”

“Thirty-seven years after the launch of the first GPS satellite, there is still little recognition by the world’s governments of how essential resilient position, navigation and timing have become to the critical infrastructure of their nations,” Last said.

After the Volpe Report came an industry report chaired by the Father of GPS, Professor Bradford Parkinson (Col, USAF, Ret), describing eLoran as the only cost-effective method of backup to GPS. The report was published globally, and then the United States completely failed to implement the transition from Loran-C to eLoran. At the time it failed politically, the Loran-C to eLoran conversion was 85 percent complete and only needed a small amount of funding for the future. Luddites within the U.S. OMB (Office of Management and Budget) managed to kill the program just short of completion. Unfortunately, the message to the world of GPS users was the U.S. had categorically rejected eLoran as a complimentary PNT system.

David presented the European point of view: “The Volpe Report, an FAA study, proposed and demonstrated Enhanced Loran (eLoran). GPS-like digital techniques were applied to the obsolete Loran-C low-frequency system. The result were astounding: it met the accuracy, integrity, availability and continuity standards of certain aircraft instrument approaches plus the very demanding port-entrance requirements of shipping, and it delivered precise timing to support telecomms. Brad Parkinson’s high-level study group of industry leaders said this was the only cost-effective GPS substitute for U.S. needs.

“The world outside the U.S. watched the Department of Homeland Security announce eLoran as the U.S. national backup to GPS and then completely fail to implement it! That message, that the U.S. does not need a complementary system and has rejected eLoran, is the current understanding of U.S. policy in many countries.”

Professor Last maintains the same eLoran drama is now being played out in Europe in real time. The UK developed its own eLoran system from the North of Norway to the South of France which, while it only officially achieved initial operational capability on Oct 31, 2014, has in fact been running flawlessly 24/7 for three years.

The message to the world, especially Europe, should be that the eLoran concept proposed by the U.S. FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) really works and is easy to implement. It has been, in fact, implemented and maintained in the UK by a mere handful of personnel.

However, according to David, the European eLoran system may never reach FOC (full operational capability) because currently Western Europe lacks any coordinated plan to respond to the vulnerabilities of GPS and all other PNT systems. Many have yet to embrace or even recognize the Volpe Report.

Indeed, several European countries are planning to shut down their eLoran systems supposedly since that is what we (the U.S.) did and it seems to be working for us.

David explains that “this [proven] system may never reach Full Operational Capability. Western Europe lacks any coordinated plan to respond to the vulnerability of GPS — why, who needs that when Europe has Galileo and EGNOS! The governments who control the Loran stations in Norway and France, observing that mariners no longer want Loran-C, plan to close down the transmissions just nine weeks from now, and demolish the infrastructure. After all, they say, that is what the U.S. did.”

Service Alternative

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this was indeed not our finest hour. However David maintains there is a realistic commercial alternative: provide eLoran as a service. This is exactly what some in the United Kingdom and Europe are considering. It is a totally viable alternative, but David asserts that what would really help “is a positive signal from the United States.”

Continuing in the same vein, David posits “all is not lost. Responding to the future — indeed, the present — needs of the telecomms and broadcasting industries, and driven from the U.S., there is a commercial plan to take over and operate that European Loran infrastructure and sell its services to government and industrial users. If governments struggle to seize the initiative in this area, let the market — and good old greed — provide the mechanism for realizing the multiple benefits, paying the costs and making a profit. But I believe that this initiative will only succeed in Europe, if there is a positive signal from the U.S. The world listens to signals from the U.S., from the EXCOM, from this board.”

Unique Organizations

Historically, relationships between multi-GNSS systems are confrontational at best; however, David states clearly that Europeans realize the PNTAB and EXCOM are unique and unprecedented around the world. “These official government entities recognize and advocate for resilient PNT that is of major importance to critical infrastructures of the U.S. and other nations as well.”

In actuality, the U.S. has faced up to these vulnerabilities thanks to the PNTAB and EXCOM, two truly unique organizations. Undeniably, there is an incalculable polyphonic argument to be made concerning the vulnerabilities of space-based PNT systems such as GPS and how to mitigate them, but globally beyond the PNTAB and EXCOM, no one is officially having these critical discussions.

In the end, according to Professor Last, over the next nine weeks the immediate future of PNT really comes down to one critical question: “Will global PNT with eLoran be a global system or a nationally unique system?”

David supports his cogent argument for eLoran by giving excellent examples of GPS and multi-GNSS jamming supporting his insightful adage, “Space-based PNT systems live and die together.” They are all subject to the same vulnerabilities.

Wrapping up his refreshingly insightful presentation, Professor Last posed two questions to the PNTAB:

  1. Does the U.S. see a role for eLoran as a complement to resilient GPS?
  2. Does the U.S. recognize and encourage the move to GNSS receivers that take advantage of multiple constellations?

As one PNTAB pundit opined, “The critical issue for the U.S. government is we have to break the mold. The current administration is too often technologically controlled by Luddites and held hostage by low-level bureaucrats within OMB.”

Professor Last appropriately has the last word: “The bottom line for the PNTAB, EXCOM and USG is that the United Kingdom, nee Europe, is asking for support on eLoran.”

Until next time, happy navigating and don’t forget your GPS when you head over the bridge and through the woods to Grandma’s house. Happy Thanksgiving!

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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.

1 Comment on "PNTAB and eLoran in the People’s Republic"

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  1. Gene Osten says:

    Perhaps Professor Last could be persuaded to have a conversation with our esteemed Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, and “explain” to him the folly of his statements regarding the future of GPS.

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