Electronic Weapons: Destructive GPS Spoofing


April 3, 2024: Commercial aircraft flying in the Middle East and northern Europe have been victims of a growing number of GPS spoofing incidents that disrupt GNSS, or Global Navigation Satellite Systems. When this happens the onboard navigation systems become unreliable and pose an increasing risk to air travel. Fortunately, commercial airline pilots are trained and equipped to deal with a large number of emergency situations using other options like PNT (Positioning, Navigation, and Timing) services across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. There are also IRS (Inertia Reference Systems) that functions even when there is a lot of GPS jamming. Pilots can also rely on older systems like the ground based radio navigation system VOR/DME. These systems are available to pilots but are only useful in an emergency if pilots have some experience in using VOR/DME.

There is also a need for systems to warn pilots that GPS jamming or spoofing is present.

In late August 2023, pilots operating in the Middle East reported instances of their onboard navigation systems being overtaken by fake GPS signals. This corrupted navigation systems and indicated to pilots that the aircraft was hundreds of kilometers from where they were supposed to be. This often led to a complete loss of navigational capability, which sometimes forced pilots to rely on verbal directions from air traffic controllers and following recognizable indicators in the ground like rivers or major highway systems. All types of commercial aircraft were victims of these navigational problems, especially GPS spoofing.

The first reported incidents of the spoofing were in Iraqi airspace close to the Iranian border that is regularly used by flights traveling between Europe and Persian Gulf states. The pilot of a business jet traveling to Dubai reported that the plane almost flew into Iranian airspace, without authorization, due to the spoofing of the navigation system. Jamming GPS signals is common in war zones and near sensitive military sites. The jamming is sometimes an effort to deflect UAV or missile strikes. Pilots are warned of regional instances of frequent spoofing and switch to more reliable navigation aids.

Spoofing is more a greater problem than jamming because pilots may immediately realize there is a problem with jamming, while spoofing makes subtle but ultimately dangerous changes to the accuracy of aircraft navigation systems.

In mid- 2023, a new form of GPS spoofing was reported to pilots, where the signal was powerful enough to make the aircraft navigation system useless and pilots must rely on visual information to navigate. American low-earth-orbit satellite systems made it possible to track one instance of spoofing signals to Tehran, the capital of Iran. It was not possible to identify any individuals responsible for the spoofing.

The recent outbreak of spoofing was traced to a location near the Iranian capital, Tehran. It was not possible to discover who was responsible for the false signals, but one source was apparently Israel where the October 2023 war in Gaza led the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in northern Israel to use it to thwart Hezbollah guided missile attacks. The IDF advised that GPS signals along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon were disrupted because it is where Hezbollah launches its guided missiles from.

Countries in northern Europe have been victims of some GPS spoofing since Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022. The GPS spoofing also took place in the Baltic States, which border Russia, and northern Europe in general. The source of the jamming was nearby Russian territory where the jamming and spoofing was meant to disrupt navigation systems on Ukrainian UAVs and military aircraft. While the spoofing and jamming began in early 2022, it did not become a major problem until late 2023. This meant military and commercial pilots in the region had to be alert to subtle failures of their navigation systems and be ready to switch to visual navigation.

Russia is the source of most jamming and spoofing in the Middle East and Europe, and this is an effort to protect Russian bases in Russia and Syria from UAV attacks. NATO believes that Russia may also be using all this jamming and spoofing to measure the ability of NATO countries to deal with it. Russia wants to be ready if they go to war with NATO nations in the future. This would explain the Russian electronic warfare activities in the Baltic Sea, off the northern Norwegian coast and along the border with Finland.

The United States developed and established the GPS system in the 1990s. China, Russia and Europe followed with their own systems, but GPS was the most commonly used. The Americans maintain the number of GPS satellites needed to keep GPS going. The U.S. also upgrades GPS satellites, but it takes a while for enough upgraded GPS satellites to be in orbit for the upgrades to have an impact on earth.

A basic problem with GPS is that the signals emitted by a network of GPS satellites are weak and easily overpowered by activities on the ground. This was a known vulnerability, but GPS was so useful to so many people that the risk is seen as reasonable. The vulnerability can be exploited by ground based jammers and spoofers, who are difficult to detect, identify, arrest, and prosecute. This is especially true in a war zone.

Civilians carrying out spoofing and jamming activities became more common over the last twenty years. This meant various rebel and Islamic terrorist groups worldwide had access to jamming and spoofing technology, and increasingly used it. Civilians in Western nations who did this and got caught claimed it was only a harmless prank. It wasn’t because any nearby aircraft can have their navigation disrupted and, if this happens gradually, it is often not noticed until it becomes a major problem, like when the aircraft attempts to land.

Pilots of smaller non-commercial aircraft are another matter. The pilots of these aircraft often have a lot of military or civilian flight experience and are able to handle spoofing and jamming. Eventually a landing accident by a small private aircraft will be traced to spoofing and jamming. The incident will be in the news for a short while and then disappear, as minor issues like that do.




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