A year before Russia invaded Ukraine, senior American military commanders admitted that the U.S. was woefully vulnerable to enemy (Chinese and Russian) electronic warfare weapons during wartime. Recent wargames, accurately representing these enemy capabilities, finally got enough attention from senior commanders to make a serious effort to deal with the problem. These wargame exercises showed that China could shut down most American satellite and ground-based electronic communications and make American forces much more vulnerable than expected. This was not a new problem. For over two decades similar realistic wargames demonstrated this growing vulnerability but the senior military leadership did not respond effectively, or even admit there was a problem. There was, and it’s been around for over half a century.
The United States had long suffered from ignoring the capabilities of enemy electronic weapons and getting away with it. This was common during the Cold War, when NATO and Soviet Union forces confronted each other along the Iron Curtain. This border divided Western Europe from Russian occupied East Europe from the late 1940s until the late 1980s. NATO air forces and navies took Russian electronic weapons seriously and often tested their aircraft to determine their ability to handle Russian electronic jamming and other electronic weapons. The land forces rarely tested, much less used these electronic weapons during training. NATO commanders may have ignored the problem but occasionally lower-ranking troops would “accidently” turn on their electronic jammers during a training exercise, causing chaos among American forces. Jammers were not supposed to be used during training because they would disrupt NATO communications and this problem was dismissed because a fix was always in the works. This seemed absurd to many NATO troops and commanders because it was known, from unclassified sources, that Russian troops trained to fight in a heavily jammed environment. That meant that Russian troops followed war plans that were not dependent on reliable electronic communications at all times, while their opponents tended to be unprepared. By the 1980s NATO forces finally took steps to deal with this problem and this bothered Russian commanders a great deal.
In the 21st century satellite surveillance and communications are crucial. China has taken the lead in developing methods for disrupting enemy access to these satellite resources and minimizing the damage done to Chinese satellite capabilities. The Chinese are also emulating the Cold War Russian forces and training to continue operating under conditions where communications and aerial/satellite surveillance is diminished or absent.
The latest American wargames accurately displayed these problems. Learning from the previous instances where these problems were dismissed, the wargame developers provided lots of documentation, most of it classified, to back up the wargame portrayal of the threat and its impact. Attention has been paid, but it remains to be seen if remedies will be found and applied in time. Another lesson learned during the Cold War was that you go to war with the forces you have, not the ones you are developing for use sometime in the future.
An example of this occurred in 2023 when Russia deployed and used a new barrage jammer, which broadcast electronic interference on all frequencies and did so at greater distances than before. This was meant to disrupt the Ukrainian use of GPS guided weapons like GMLRS rockets and JDAM GPS guided bombs. American GPS guided weapons come with an unjammable INS (Inertial Navigation System) backup that continues to provide accurate guidance if the GPS signal is disrupted or jammed. The new Russian barrage jammer appeared capable of reducing the effectiveness of the INS backup by jamming the GPS signal quickly and farther away from the target. This meant INS received incorrect location updates and failed to perform as an effective backup for GPS. This was already recognized as a potential problem and, a year before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Israeli military announced that it was the prime backer of the new Advanced Navigation Technology Center. This new division of state-owned IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries) will develop and manufacture a new generation of INS technology to complement or replace satellite (GPS) guidance. IAI did not provide any more details of the new INS technology, not even the name of the new system. IAI already develops and makes INS systems as unjammable backups for GPS systems but the future is seen as better INS. Larger U.S. firms often cooperate with new Israeli firms in developing new tech and receive access to the new tech at the same time Israeli forces do.
The 21st century saw research in the U.S. and other industrialized countries developing new concepts and technologies that greatly improved INS accuracy and cost. By 2013 prototypes of new INS tech proved INS could be nearly as accurate as GPS and almost as small. Cost was still a factor, with the new INS still costing more than 10 times more than the current GPS. But this is all a big improvement over what has been available before. The new INS tech can now be used to more effectively monitor GPS and alert the operator that their GPS has either developed a problem or is being jammed. The new INS systems are also useful for some fast missiles that often lose their GPS signal as they maneuver. Another urgent chore for INS is to more effectively deal with the growing use of GPS spoofing (misdirecting). This involves EW (electronic Warfare) equipment that can mislead) rather than jam without alerting the victim that their navigation system might not be reliable. Thus, even with the ability of GPS anti-jamming tech to keep up with jammer technology, there is still a demand for a new INS. That has led to smaller, cheaper and more accurate INS systems. Aside from airlines and commercial shipping, there is not much of a mass market for these new INS systems because for most users, GPS is reliable enough to keep the INS gear out of the more cost-sensitive markets. But the demand from the airlines, shipping companies and the military is huge. INS tech is becoming a popular feature for high-end smartphones and other consumer items, because some smartphone and smartwatch manufacturers seek to use INS to automatically fill in if the user temporarily loses the GPS signal.
Many Department of Defense navigation and electronics experts believe current anti-jamming efforts are sufficient to keep military GPS use viable for a while, but the improvements in GPS jamming and spoofing technology have been arriving faster than expected. Despite the secrecy about GPS disruption, since 2017 there has been growing evidence that Russia has been frequently jamming or spoofing GPS signals, mainly to hide the exact location equipment that allows GPS tracking. Developing equipment like this is easily within Russian capabilities. In early 2019 a report made the news revealing that there had recently been nearly 10,000 instances where someone, apparently Russia, had been jamming or spoofing satellite navigation signals. Not just the American GPS, but also signals from non-American satellite navigation systems but also the Chinese Beidou, EU’s Galileo, Japan’s QZAA and even the Russian GLONASS. Much of this activity was not outright jamming but harder to detect spoofing. This was apparently done to conceal the true location of key Russian officials, like president Putin, and Russian military units. The spoofing was particularly common for Russian military forces in Ukraine and Syria. Spoofing replaced the actual satellite signal with a false one that rendered smart bombs or planned attacks on targets inaccurate. Spoofing can introduce the false signal gradually and sometimes delay a navigation system's realization that it is being deceived. That’s one function of INS, to act as a monitor for GPS as well as a backup. Current INS tech relies on receiving an accurate GPS location initially and periodically thereafter to keep both GPS and INS location data in sync. GPS depends on continuous satellite signals to operate and the INS is used to step in and replace GPS when the satellite signal becomes temporarily too weak, or absent. When an accurate GPS signal is achieved, INS goes back into standby mode. Spoofing can now mimic these momentary disruptions and evade detection as a false signal by the INS, which is completely self-contained.
Israeli INS researchers are not the only ones seeking an INS that is accurate and persistent enough to replace GPS for extended periods. INS has long suffered from the inability to provide as accurate a location as satellite navigation systems while also suffering from “drift” as the gyroscope and acceleration capabilities now performed by microelectronics of the chip-based INS cannot maintain as continuously precise location as the space satellite-based system can. This is no longer seen as an insurmountable problem, nor is the large cost-difference between GPS and INS tech. Israel apparently feels it is closer to a solution than anyone else.
Meanwhile, spoofing satellite navigation systems has become more popular and practical because it does not require expensive or high-tech equipment. While American weapons and military navigation systems have a backup in the form of unjammable INS systems, these are useless if the spoofing is not detected. American systems are supposed to detect spoofing and revert to INS but the Americans do not disclose details of how these systems work in order to make it difficult for spoofing systems to be modified to be less detectable. That is one reason why the U.S. has not released detailed information on spoofing incidents because some of them may have evaded the INS spoofing detection tech.
To further complicate the issue, there have also been instances where mandatory AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponders, that all large ships must carry, are more frequently reporting instances of getting no GPS signal at all. Large ships usually carry two AIS units, in case one malfunctions so AIS failure can be ruled out as a cause. Something outside the ship is messing with the GPS signal. This demonstrates how it is possible to deceive the unjammable INS and new INS systems are sought that will eliminate that risk by replacing GPS most of the time.
The new INS technology has attracted a lot of attention in the military as backups are always appreciated because when equipment fails in combat, or for commercial users like aircraft or ships, it’s literally a matter of life or death. Meanwhile, the U.S. is building and testing more compact GPS anti-jamming systems for smaller (as small as 200 kg/440 pounds) UAVs. This is part of a program to equip all American UAVs, even the smallest ones, with more secure GPS. While all UAVs can be “flown” by the operator, the GPS makes it a lot easier for the operator to keep track of exactly where his UAV is at all times, and sometimes the UAV is programmed to simply patrol between a series of GPS coordinates. If the GPS jams or fails, the operator can usually use the video feed to find landmarks on the ground and bring the UAV back to where it can be seen and landed. Other UAVs have a failsafe system for the GPS. When it is no longer available the UAV turns around and heads back in the general direction of the operator. This is better than just allowing the GPS-less UAV keep flying until it runs out of fuel and crashes somewhere,
GPS reliability threats are coming from a few suppliers like Russia, China and North Korea. These nations have developed all manner of GPS jamming technology, and in 2019 it became public that the Russians were using GPS new spoofing technology to conceal the true location of senior leaders and some military units. In 2023 Russia revealed their high intensity barrage jammer that was so comprehensive and powerful that it also disrupted Russian communications and guidance systems. The new barrage jammer was still vulnerable to aircraft carrying one or more HARM (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles) weapons. When released, HARM homed in on the source of the jamming and destroyed it. HARM was normally used to destroy enemy air defense radars, but they worked against the new Russian barrage jammers as well. These new barrage jammers are expensive and, while they are also mobile, Russia doesn’t have a lot of them.
Developers and users of GPS jamming gear tend to keep quiet about what they do because this sort of thing is illegal in peacetime, especially when civilians experience GPS disruptions themselves. When the United States tests military GPS jamming, it does so at sea or in remote areas and warns nearby civilians who might encounter GPS problems to be aware of the tests and act accordingly. This warning policy has been in use for decades because of the growing number of new electronic equipment designs that could cause problems for civilians if the disruptive effect extended farther than expected.
Other nations are not as secretive in complaining and often the culprit is Russia. In late 2018 Finland and Norway went public with their accusations that Russia deliberately jammed GPS signals in northern Finland and Norway from a location near the Russian military bases in the Kola Peninsula on the Barents Sea. The jamming took place as NATO held its largest training exercise since the Cold War ended in 1991. Russia denied any responsibility even though they are known to possess long-range jammers for GPS and other signals. Norway said they had tracked the jammer to a specific location but when Russia refused to admit any involvement Norway refused to explain how they tracked the signal because that would provide Russia with information on Norwegian EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment that might be useful to them.
In late 2020 Iran was caught testing spoofing tech at a military facility in the capital Tehran and trying to keep it secret. It is not known if the Iranians developed the spoofing tech themselves or received it from Russia or China.
Until the appearance of the new spoofing tech, GPS jamming had little or no impact on the NATO military exercises and even commercial airliners operating in the area had INS backup in case GPS signals were not working properly. The potential victims were civilians with smaller aircraft or on the ground who depend on commercial navigation gear using GPS. Then again, that may have been the point because Russian firms have long been producing a wide variety of GPS jammers that are generally ineffective against military GPS users but would be useful for criminals, terrorists or anyone involved in irregular warfare, as Russia has been in Ukraine since 2014. As for the damage to diplomatic relations with Norway and Finland, these two nations need no reminders of what a bad neighbor Russia is and historically has been.
GPS spoofing equipment has also found a market among criminal gangs. This was first encountered during 2018 in Shanghai, China where local gangsters were found to be using technology for spoofing GPS signals. Shanghai was just the beginning because this spoofing tech was subsequently encountered in twenty other Chinese coastal cities where gangsters ran profitable smuggling operations. The Chinese GPS spoofing was implemented differently from the Russian method. The Russian spoofing would make all GPS devices in an area appear in the same position instead of the many different positions they actually were. In contrast, the Chinese spoofing, when active, would show individual ships each in a different location but always around the same central point that was apparently where the spoofing signals were broadcast. This produced what was called a “crop circle” pattern. This was first noted by crews of ships slowly entering the port of Shanghai. While doing so they would watch the location of other ships via their AIS transponders. By international law, all large seagoing ships were required to carry and use AIS equipment, which constantly broadcast the GPS position of the ship. But there were cases where ships suddenly saw the AIS positions of ships near them change. The bridge crew could see, often with/or without, the use of binoculars, where the other ships actually were while, at the same time, the AIS display was showing them somewhere else within a circular area. After a few minutes, AIS signals would accurately report location again. In situations like this, it was noted that no GPS receivers onboard were receiving a signal, nor were GPS devices ashore that were within the circle.
The Chinese government denied responsibility for this GPS spoofing and blamed it on smugglers who apparently use the spoofing device to avoid being caught by the police while a smuggler ship was carrying illegal cargo. In one case the smuggler was caught anyway, because of an accident caused by the spoofing, and the smuggler ship was found to be carrying sand illegally obtained nearby and being taken out of the port for sale elsewhere. Sand mining had been banned in this region because this valuable commodity was in great demand elsewhere and exporting more of it was damaging the environment.
GPS spoofing declined during 2020 but China revealed no details about what happened. In the past China has given local hackers a choice between going to prison or quietly working for the Chinese government. Russia uses similar tactics as do many other governments. One thing that was noted about the “Shanghai Spoofer” was that the spoofing often took place around oil terminals where ships smuggling oil for Iran or to North Korea often operated. The governments of Iran and North Korea also noticed this and could have received useful information on how the Shanghai spoofing gear worked. That’s one of the conspiracy theories popular with many Iranians and South Koreans.